Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Have the parties decided?

The authors of The Party Decides (forthcoming from University of Chicago Press) make a strong case that, in the wake of 1970s reforms designed to disempower party insiders from controlling nominations, those same insiders managed to re-assert control of the process anyway. Party elites determined every presidential party nomination from 1980 to 2000, and even if Kerry wasn't the consensus choice of Democratic insiders in 2004, they did manage to keep Dean from gaining the nomination.

So what's happening this year? Several weird things. For one, the Democrats seem more organized than the Republicans. Democratic insiders have more or less converged on Hillary Clinton as their candidate, even if polling out of Iowa and New Hampshire remains way too close to call. Republican insiders have kinda converged on Romney, but the party surprisingly never unified. All their candidates seem flawed. As the TPD authors nicely sum up in an interesting new paper:
Rudy Giuliani is unacceptable to social conservatives because he favors abortion rights, gun control, and gay rights; John McCain is unacceptable to party loyalists because of his failure to support the GOP agenda consistently in his Senate votes; Mitt Romney is unacceptable because he converted too late to issues that social conservatives care about and because some are distrustful of his Mormon faith; Mike Huckabee raised taxes while governor of Arkansas and has expressed populist and protectionist sentiments recently, which makes him anathema to economic conservatives. Fred Thompson is widely acceptable within the party and initially seemed to be the unifying figure many Republicans hoped for, but has demonstrated a disconcerting lack of energy on the campaign trail. It seems odd that a party that faces no particularly divisive issues would be unable to find a candidate capable of bridging its normal factional divisions and willing to campaign hard for nomination, but such is the case in the Republican Party this year.
So where are the parties this year? Well, they're not doing nothing. At the very least, the dramatic undoing of Rudy Giuliani shows that social conservatives still have some power within the party. Here was a popular national figure who was the clear choice of a plurality of GOP voters all through 2007, but he couldn't get it together for the early contests, and it looks all but certain that he's toast. This is at least partially because of the work of folks like James Dobson, who claimed that a Giuliani victory would actually be worse for his movement that a Hillary Clinton victory. However, other candidates, like McCain or Huckabee, who are clearly not the favorites of party insiders, still have a decent shot at the nomination at this point.

Similarly, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton will likely get nominated, but Iowa is a three-way tossup right now, and she faces serious competition from Obama in New Hampshire. She could certainly handle one of those losses, but if either Obama or Edwards managed to take both Iowa and New Hampshire, that could destroy her candidacy, or at least seriously wound it.

The insiders may pull it off: Romney and Clinton will probably be the nominees. But it's way too close right now. And even if Romney does it, his insider status pales in comparison to those of most earlier contests.

Update: Link to paper fixed - now free - thanks to the Monkey Cage.

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