• Hans Noel

Is the Party Deciding?

Joe Biden addresses a crowd at a victory rally in Columbia, S.C., with Rep. Jim Clyburn nearby. Clyburn, an influential Democrat in the state, endorsed Biden shortly before the primary. His endorsement is widely viewed as critical to his victory in South Carolina, which in turn is viewed as critical to Biden's success on Super Tuesday.

After Joe Biden won the South Carolina primary, a lot of power players in the Democratic Party have come to his aid. Rivals Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out and endorsed him. Beto O'Rourke endorsed him. He raised a great deal of money.

And this help seems to have translated into success on Super Tuesday. Biden took the delegate lead Tuesday night, and his victories in places like Minnesota and Massachusetts, where he didn't really even campaign, suggest the support from the party really helped.

So, does this mean The Party is Deciding? In 2008, Marty Cohen, David Karol, John Zaller and I wrote a book arguing that party leaders can help their chosen candidates win the nomination by supporting them in the invisible primary. But recent failures to coordinate, notably among Republicans in 2016, have caused many, including us, to rethink the thesis.

But now, Biden's new life is breathing new life into The Party Decides.

Should it count?

On the one hand, it sure looks like party leaders are coordinating to help Biden. On the other hand, weren’t they supposed to do that in the invisible primary? And anyway, shouldn’t we wait till the nomination is over?

I think there's a good bit of evidence from Super Tuesday that party coordination and support can help a candidate. It's not just endorsements per se. In Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar's campaign pitched in with radio spots and sent out volunteers on Biden's behalf.

But the real argument the book is not simply that endorsements might have positive effects.

The Party Decides is ultimately about how to think about parties in nominations. Instead of looking at nominations from the point of view of candidates competing for votes, we looked from the point of view of the party, and the incentives of activists, leaders and long-standing members. This meant we had to think hard about who was the party, which led to other work on groups and policy-demanders. Our view of “the party” is broader and more fluid than some. We think "the party" is a collection of groups, being coordinated by party leaders. Groups like black interests and youth interests and so on. Part of the argument is about how parties responded to the environment that was created after the McGovern-Fraser reforms that created our primary dominated system, but part of it was also about the period before reform, and the general problem that party leaders face in any nomination. Coordination is hard, but there are reasons for self-identifying party leaders to want to try anyway. If they don’t, things they don’t like things can happen. Things like a candidate who appeals to only a part of the party, or who would like to burn down much of what they have fought for. Of course, these things can even happen at a convention, and they have. But the players will try to do what they can to prevent them.

After McGovern-Fraser, parties slowly learned that coordinating in the invisible primary was a good approach. But even so, they’ve often had some trouble doing that, because coordination is hard. Sometimes, the groups in the party just don’t agree. This kind of disagreement, I think, has been a major hurdle in 2020. Sometimes attempts to coordinate in the invisible primary fail, but the party doesn’t give up. See for instance 1988, and 2004, where a lot of party coordinating activity happened after Iowa. So 2020 might be a case like that. But also, for a variety of reasons, the environment is changing, and the parties are still learning to adapt. In other words, the view of parties in the book can explain part of what is now happening. I think looking at nominations from the point of view of the party is incredibly helpful. But there are also clearly features of the current situation that the book doesn't deal much with, such as what happens when a party is internally divided the way the Democrats are today.


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