Monday, August 2, 2010

When the insiders blow it

The main story in my book and in Cohen et al's The Party Decides is that party insiders -- usually a handful of key donors, activists, and officeholders -- often try to forestall or strongly bias primary elections by rallying around one candidate and discouraging other candidates from competing.  A great example of this was the group of Republican insiders pushing Josh Penry out of the Colorado governor's race.  I'm inferring and probably projecting a bit, but my impression is that they thought that a Penry/McInnis primary would be too damaging to the party, that McInnis was tested and trustworthy on the issues they cared about, that Penry was a good soldier who was young and could still do great things in the years to come, and that they'd rather devote party money to attacking the Democratic nominee than to criticizing fellow Republicans.  This group probably didn't devote much effort to trying to push Dan Maes out of the race because they didn't take him seriously -- he had no experience, no money, and no significant backing.  So McInnis would have a clear path to the nomination and a solid shot of taking the governor's mansion.

Whoops.  Okay, so it turns out the party rallied behind a seriously flawed candidate.  He had a scandal that was invisible at the time but ultimately proved damaging.  Republican primary voters, uncomfortable with backing a plagiarist (either because the charge bothers them or because they think it will make him more vulnerable in the fall), are now moving over to Maes' camp.  Even in a straight fight, Maes would have next to no chance of winning the general election.  But of course it won't be a straight fight, because Tom Tancredo, disgusted by the whole thing, decided to save the village by destroying it.

This is about as bad as it gets for a party.  It's sort of like if the Democrats had nominated John Edwards for president in 2008 and the baby scandal emerged a month later.  At the outset, this was a winnable election for the Republicans.  Now, Democratic nominee John Hickenlooper just gets to sit back and watch his opponents destroy themselves.  I can't think of a luckier man in politics today.

How does the GOP pull itself out of this?  Well, they may just write this election off to bad luck and focus their attention elsewhere.  I suppose it's possible that Tancredo will decide his whole mission was a silly one and withdraw.  And then maybe, if McInnis somehow wins the primary, he steps down and is replaced by Penry or the loser of the Senate primary.  Yeah, that would be portrayed as a corrupt inside deal, but that would still be better for the party than the current situation.

Party insiders usually make pretty good decisions.  They often have more information available to them than your average voter does.  But clearly, they can blow it once in a while.


Greg Koger said...

Seth, on the other hand the CO Democrats illustrate the dangers of a protracted party primary battle. As you know, Romanoff has apparently pulled even with Bennet, but he has literally bet his home on this race. Now, if Romanoff wins the primary, his campaign will be broke AND without the "loan of last resort".

Even weirder, this is occurring in a state that, according to a recent Weekly Standard article linked by a close friend of mine (, has a strong Democratic party network. Why didn't the insiders call the Senate nomination race a long time ago?

Seth Masket said...

You're right, of course, that there actually are dangers associated with protracted primaries. However, those dangers are, I think, often exaggerated. Remember the PUMAs in 2008, who were going to cost Obama the presidency by defecting to McCain? Didn't happen. Parties are usually strong enough to handle a "split" caused by a primary.

Yes, if Romanoff wins, he'll be broke. But that's where donors come in. Democratic donors all over the country know it's a key race, and they'll quickly get over their anger toward Romanoff if they think he can keep the seat blue. And apparently Romanoff is willing to take DSCC cash, despite its ties to PACs.

Yeah, it's kind of interesting that the Dem party insiders weren't able to forestall this primary. It's a tough one for them, and many insiders were really divided. They've known and loved Romanoff for years and were pissed at Gov. Ritter for not appointing him. On the other hand, they love Pres. Obama and want to support his candidate, and Bennet's been doing pretty well in the Senate by their standards. Notably, the big 4 mentioned in that wonderful Weekly Standard article haven't given to either candidate in this contest. Had it been any two other candidates, this probably would have been an easier contest to stamp out early.

Ben Bishin said...

Hey Seth,
I tend to think they blow it much more frequently than we appreciate--because it is so uncertain. While they certainly have better information, it is still highly imperfect.

I suspect elites would be more successful at lower levels of government where there is less scrutiny of the candidates so that the advantages elites have in the process count, relatively, for more.

Two examples that just jump to the top of my head are Jack Ryan in Illinois a few years back and (my favorite) 2008 Democratic congressional candidate Raul Martinez.

Martinez looked like a great bet to beat incumbent Lincoln Diaz Balart for Florida's 23rd in a Democratic year. He was a Cuban American Democrat who had been elected mayor of Hialeah (the most Cuban city in the US) and served like 15 years. But while the insiders knew he had been convicted of fraud, they didn't know that there was video of him beating a man in the street, which the Diaz Balart campaign made into an ad:

Seth Masket said...

You might be right, Ben. Obviously, the insiders have more information than the rest of us, but that doesn't always mean they have the right information, or that they use it. It's disturbing to think that they might fall back on the same silly heuristics the rest of us use (see Harding, Warren, nomination of).