When discussing the Republican nomination battle, it is critically important to understand the invisible primary that happens between now and the Iowa caucuses in early January and how it will affect the nomination.
In a groundbreaking 1962 article, sociologists Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz spelled out the dynamics of the power to set the agenda.
Of course power is exercised when A participates in the making of decisions that affect B. But power is also exercised when A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A. To the extent that A succeeds in doing this, B is prevented, for all practical purposes, from bringing to the fore any issues that might in their resolution be seriously detrimental to A's set of preferences.
They called this concept the “mobilization of bias.” It is a critically important idea to understand in electoral politics. While the general electorate has the sovereign power to choose between competing alternatives, they do not have the power to set those alternatives. Instead, the two parties establish who will be the major candidates on the ballot.
In presidential elections, those decisions were once left up to the party regulars who gathered at the quadrennial conventions. But after the calamitous Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, a series of reforms were instituted that took the nomination power away from the party organizations and sent them to the people, in the form of primaries and caucuses.
Or so it seemed, at least.
While a few “insurgent,” anti-establishment candidates captured the nomination early on (George McGovern and Jimmy Carter), since 1980, every presidential nominee of both parties has been perfectly satisfactory to the party establishment. Indeed, with the exception (possibly) of Barack Obama in 2008, it is very conceivable that all the same candidates would have been chosen if the old convention selection procedures were still in place.
According to political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, this is not an accident. What we have seen in the last 40 years is the rise of an invisible primary, in which the party establishment settles upon a favored candidate:
The invisible primary is essentially a long-running national conversation among members of each party coalition about who can best unite the party and win the next presidential election. The conversation occurs in newspapers, on Sunday morning television talk shows, among activist friends over beer, in chatter at party events, and, most recently, in the blogosphere.
How can we tell who is the winner of the invisible primary? Money, for one. The candidate who raises the most money is also the one who likely has the strongest support among the well-heeled party elite. Another strong indication is endorsements from public officials, which are an outward sign of how strongly a candidate is performing in this behind the scenes conversation.
In the last 40 years, the invisible primary has become extremely important, for two reasons. First, the cost of campaigning has increased exponentially (consider: television advertisements, campaign consultants, and get out the vote organizations). Meanwhile, the utility of public funds has decreased in the last 15 or so years; public financing imposes hard spending limits that knee-capped Bob Dole in the summer of 1996, and all serious contenders have declined public funds for the primary ever since. Thus, it is hard to imagine anybody winning the nomination having raised less than $75 million on their own.
Second, frontloading has altered the nature of the nomination battle. In 1976, Jimmy Carter could start small – with virtually no establishment support – but pile win upon win for weeks on end, so that by the time people caught on to the strength of his candidacy, nobody could stop him. That’s not the case anymore. On February 5, 2008, there were a whopping 21 Republican primaries or caucuses – just one month after Iowa. To be competitive, a candidate must either have strong name recognition (like McCain and Clinton) or competent statewide organizations already in place (like Obama) by the end of the pre-primary year. That's no little feat, and to do that they need the support of local politicians and plenty of cash. In other words: they need to win or place in the invisible primary.
So far this cycle, we’ve already seen strong evidence that the invisible primary has been at work, winnowing down the field of contenders. Haley Barbour was seriously mulling a presidential run, and was a frequent guest on Sunday talk shows at the beginning of the year, but he eventually bowed out. Ditto Mitch Daniels. And, most recently, Tim Pawlenty has been a victim of the invisible primary, and his demise is a good indication of how the process can work: Pawlenty had put in place a top-tier organization, but his fundraising from the first quarter showed that the party elites were lukewarm about him. To establish his credibility, and thus stay competitive in terms of fundraising, he had to do well with the party activists who participated in Ames. He didn’t – and, surely knowing his funds were soon to run dry, he quit.
Every cycle, we see a few candidates run without regard to the invisible primary. Lacking money, endorsements, or local organizations, they soldier on anyway, hoping against hope that something will break their way. In that category this year, we can place Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum – and potentially Jon Huntsman. Ron Paul similarly lacks support from the traditional sectors that participate in the invisible primary, and instead relies on his group of hard-core believers for funds and boots on the ground. Ultimately his lack of establishment bona fides will – when push comes to shove – keep him in the second tier.
That leaves Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney. Perry and Romney are both clearly on track at this point to dominate the invisible primary, which means that the Republican electorate will likely get to choose between these two next winter. That just leaves Bachmann, and while many have now placed her in the top tier, I remain hesitant to do that. Winning Ames is not a sufficient condition for entry into the top tier; Pat Robertson won the straw poll in 1987 (with a larger share of the vote than Bachmann). She has to perform well in the invisible primary, which means she has to raise enough money and win enough endorsements to have a credible national organization in place by February. Can she do that? The jury is still out – and, I’d note, she tried to become the leader of the House Republican Conference, but dropped out after it became clear that Jeb Hensarling would be the easy winner. That suggests a lack of support for her among the Republican establishment. We’ll get a better sense of how she is doing when the next fundraising report from the Federal Election Commission comes out.
The “New Politics” reformers of the early 1970s thought they were sending the power to nominate back to the people, but that didn’t really happen. The people have some power, no doubt, as exercised through the primaries and caucuses, yet the party establishment still retains significant control. Through the money and endorsements that are dispensed over the course of the invisible primary, they determine who is and who is not a viable candidate – and it is from this list that the voters ultimately must make their choices.