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Morning Jay: Welcome to the Invisible Primary

6:00 AM, Aug 17, 2011 • By JAY COST
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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.

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