As political scientists have reckoned over the past decade or so, the “invisible primary” is instrumental in determining the eventual nominee. Shortly after election day, Jonathan Bernstein commented on the commencement of the nomination campaigns for both political parties. He noted that “we can talk about it sensibly or not.” This blog is an attempt at the former. Moreover, as time wears on, we’ll probably not confine ourselves strictly to the invisible primary here, and consider other workings of our party system as the two are directly tied to one another.
I thought a good inaugural post would be one quick
explanation as to why this invisible primary takes so bloody long. If Bernstein is correct (and I certainly
reckon that he is) the invisible primary for the 2016 Republican nomination
began in September, as their 2012 prospects dimmed. A European friend expressed a touch of haughty
derision about our long presidential election seasons and asked why it takes this long to sort out party leadership and nominees as opposed to other nations
with presidential systems. My immediate
reply was it is largely an artifact of our decentralized party structure, the
lack of formal national leadership, and that in many respects the American
system actually isn’t as different from his as it appears at first blush.
Shoring up the support of the rank-and-file in any
party system is a full time pursuit.
Party leaders in European democracies are constantly attending to their
membership and keeping their factions happy; they just have the advantage of clear
party hierarchy and networks that gives order to the process outside of the
electoral arena and an ever-present national leadership.
The Americans lack such formal hierarchical
party structures, forcing potential nominees to delve into the informal networks
of intense policy demanders (elected officials, state party officials, and
opinion leaders) as these broadly defined party leaders attempt to arrive at a
consensus in an extended electoral
process. It’s not that this consensus is
any easier or harder to land upon in either system, it’s just that in Europe
the consensus is usually clear at any given time between elections as the parties almost always
have a clear standard bearer, and formal means to replace failed leadership
should the need arise. American parties
have no such luck. We don’t have or really need a national standard bearer outside of a sitting
president. Hence, both the party and
presidential hopefuls are forced into the long conversation of the invisible
primary as the party slowly decides whom the nominee will be. Though it may certainly annoy some people
that our campaigns are interminable, there are rational, structural reasons why
this is so.