What if the Republican Party Can't Decide?

What if the Republican Party Can't Decide?
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Yesterday I analyzed endorsement data from previous presidential primaries to show that Hillary Clinton is performing very well in the invisible Democratic primary. Today I’m going to turn to the Republican invisible primary and compare that contest to past invisible primary battles.  To anyone unfamiliar with the term “invisible primary,” I would point to my piece from yesterday, to some of the good analyses at other news sites, or to “The Party Decides” – it’s one of the best books on the invisible primary, and it’s the basis of much of this analysis.

But if you’re strapped for time, here’s my two-sentence explanation: the invisible primary is the process by which the party – broadly defined to include party elites, elected officials, interest group members and activists from the local to federal level – attempts to come to consensus on the presidential nomination before the primary so it can leverage its funds, organization and influence to persuade primary voters to nominate its preferred candidate and reject candidates who are deemed unacceptable. Party support is a big advantage, and the candidate who wins the invisible primary often wins the nomination – but it’s not a guarantee.

While Clinton dominates the Democratic invisible primary – locking up a huge number of endorsements and so far only attracting one factional challenger – none of the Republican candidates has similar numbers. In fact, in terms of endorsements from public officials -- arguably the best publicly available window into the invisible primary -- no Republican candidate has even started winning the invisible primary.

Fortunately, we do have some previous examples of races in which no candidate dominates the invisible primary early. When this happens, one of two things usually occurs: a candidate wins a late, weak or partial victory in the invisible primary and (usually) goes on to win the nomination, or the party simply fails to coalesce.

The Party Grudgingly or Partially Accepts a Candidate

Sometimes part of the party refuses to get onboard with the rest of the party’s candidate, or the party is forced to settle on its second-choice candidate right before Iowa. The 1980 Republican Primary, the 1992 Democratic Primary and the 2012 Republican Primary are examples of this sort of tepid win.

This graph shows the “endorsement points” – a system that uses endorsements from elected officials as a proxy for support in the invisible primary (metric developed by FiveThirtyEight, more explanation in my previous piece). Al Gore is included so readers can compare these weaker wins to Gore’s commanding, early invisible primary win. The dot in the lower left corner shows the combined endorsement points of the entire Republican field as of the end of last month. The graph essentially shows that no candidate in the 2016 GOP field has taken off – and at this point in 1980, 1992 and 2012, Reagan, Clinton and Romney had yet to unite the party behind them.  

Most readers likely remember Ronald Reagan’s landslide wins in the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections, but the Republican Party was not unanimously and immediately sold on the Gipper. The moderate wing of his party thought he was too conservative to win a general election, so it chose George H.W. Bush as its standard bearer instead. While Reagan won the support of the largest segment of the party – conservatives – he never really managed to bring moderates onboard and thus only scored a partial invisible primary win. Reagan sewed up the nomination relatively quickly, but the strength of Bush's challenge stemmed at least partially from Reagan's inability to win over the party's moderate wing.

In 1992, Democratic elites decided on their nominee early: New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. The Democratic establishment had its eye on Cuomo as a presidential candidate since his well-received 1984 Democratic National Convention keynote address, but Cuomo was unsure if he even wanted to run. He waited  90 minutes before the New Hampshire primary filing deadline to officially announce that he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Party insiders were shocked, and they quickly decided to settle on then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton (this accounts for the large spike in his endorsement score heading into the Iowa caucus). Clinton had some trouble in the primary – he didn’t really pick up speed until winning a number of Southern states on Super Tuesday – but the support he amassed right at the end of the invisible primary likely helped him secure the nomination in an otherwise turbulent contest.

Finally, Mitt Romney won the invisible primary in 2012, but he did not do so as quickly or convincingly as some other past nominees. Many top Republican politicians sat on their hands in the year leading up the Iowa caucuses, waiting for a Romney alternative – like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels – to jump into the race. Romney ultimately won a significant chunk of party support, but on multiple occasions former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – neither of whom were party favorites, to put it mildly – came extremely close to beating Romney.  

Each of these races provides a potential blueprint for the 2016 Republican invisible primary. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush might unite the moderate wing of the party but be unable to win conservatives – the opposite of what Reagan did in 1980. It’s also possible that a consensus candidate – maybe Scott Walker or Marco Rubio – could start to unite the party right before Iowa – as Clinton and Romney did. In a highly crowded and talented field, even a partial boost from the party could provide the push that turns a hopeful into a frontrunner. On the other hand, rank-and-file voters have overruled strong party decisions before (see Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Walter Mondale’s near loss in 1984), which suggests that voters could also veto a weak party choice.  

What if the Party Doesn’t Decide?

This is the most interesting possibility in the Republican primary – and one that too many analysts gloss over. Sometimes the factions within a party are simply too different or too obstinate in their demands and thus fail to close ranks around a candidate before Iowa. This happened in the 1988 Democratic Primary, the 2004 Democratic Primary and the 2008 Republican Primary.

This figure shows the pre-Iowa endorsement points of nominees when the party did not make a decision. Gore is again included so the other curves can be compared to a nominee who handily won both the invisible primary and his party’s nomination. The combined score for the entire 2016 GOP field is the point in the lower left-hand corner.

In the run-up to the 1988 Democratic caucus, the party failed to coalesce around a candidate. Colorado Sen. Gary Hart led in the polls, but an extramarital affair knocked him out of contention. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a party favorite, declined to run. This left the party elites with a lackluster field, and they failed to come to a consensus before Iowa. The party eventually got behind Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis, but that was only after he won a number of primaries. This is important because the electorate shaped the party’s choices. If the party elites had wanted support another candidate – say, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon – they would have a tough time promoting their candidate over Dukakis, Dick Gephardt or some other candidate with greater momentum.

In 2004, the Democrats were again in disarray. Even though the Democratic establishment believed Vermont Gov. Howard Dean – the frontrunner for a large swath of the pre-Iowa period – was too politically liberal and personally aggressive to win the general election, it was unable to unite behind a more mainstream candidate before Iowa. Dean eventually faltered and Kerry gained momentum, but the story is similar to 1988 – the party was unable to unite behind a candidate early and thus exercised less influence over the party rank-and-file. 

The most recent party failure was Arizona Sen. John McCain’s ascent to the Republican nomination in 2008. While McCain won some early endorsements, he certainly did not win the invisible primary. McCain – a self-described maverick – made enemies within his party by breaking from conservative orthodoxy on campaign finance reform, immigration and other issues. McCain’s enemies had a real incentive to find a broadly appealing McCain alternative, but they didn’t. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson momentarily appeared to be a conservative consensus candidate, but Thompson proved to be a lackluster campaigner. So the party, unable to settle on a consensus choice, ended up being stuck with a nominee that some factions strongly disliked.

So in 2016, it is entirely conceivable that the Republican Party elite will simply fail to come to a consensus. That could turn out fine for Republicans – the eventual nominee might be a decent candidate who would have been a plausible party favorite in a less crowded field (e.g. Walker, Rubio, Bush or John Kasich).

But it might turn out very poorly. If we add the 1972 and 1976 Democratic Primaries to the above list (the parties did not decide in these elections because they had yet to adapt to the post-McGovern-Fraser reforms, which led to the end of the convention-centric nomination process and ushered in our modern era of state by state primaries) we get the following list of nominees: McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Kerry and McCain. There’s only one president on that list, and after eight years of Obama the Republican elite may not want to risk waiting and seeing which candidate the primary voters choose. Because, as my boss Sean Trende notes, voters plausibly could pick any of them.  

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at dbyler@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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