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Morning Jay: Welcome to the Invisible Primary

6:00 AM, Aug 17, 2011 • By JAY COST
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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.

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