Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Coffee House Guy, the Money Primary, and the Invisible Primary

Over the past two weeks I was lucky enough to take a bit a of road trip to Oregon and Washington to visit a dear friend and family before the nuttiness of preparing my house for sale and moving up to South Dakota State (Go Jacks!) begins in ernest.  Generally when I'm on the road I don't make a particular point of socializing with random folks, and my first general order is to never blurt out that I'm a political scientist to strangers.  As my colleagues in the profession can attest to, that can elicit a wide variety of responses, the vast majority of which we'd rather not hear.  However, at a moment of weakness in a coffee joint in Park City, I was pinned down with an incriminating pile of manuscripts awaiting editorial action by coffee house guy.

After his finding pretense to engage me, exchanging pleasantries (which I suck at by the way), explaining what I was up to, and my areas of interest, we had a decent little exchange on presidential elections that got me thinking.  Here's the critical bit:

CHG: So who's the odds on favorite for the Republicans?  After all, we know Hillary will be the nominee for the Dems, since she's got all the money.

Me: Obviously it's too early to make an accurate prediction, but I'd look for someone who's got a good reputation amongst Republican governors and perhaps Senators, and can get along with the Tea Party types, evangelicals, and the country club set... maybe someone like Rob Portman, hell even Jeb Bush if he can restore the brand name.

CHG: What about Rand Paul?  He's got a bunch of hardcore supporters and can probably tap into his dad's great fundraising network, and money's the name of the game in the primaries.

Me: Money is one of those things you can't do a thing without, but it's not everything.  And, it can't be flowing in just one direction towards the candidate.  Early on, it's more important that the candidate be raising money for other folks and the parties at various levels.  Both Ron Paul and Howard Dean were raking the money into their campaigns in the early primary seasons and both had their asses handed to them when the voters began to weigh in.  Their opponents had developed networks of office holders and party activists that could open up the taps when the time came.

CHG: Makes sense.

Me: Yeah, I wish I was the one who wrote the book on that...

CHG: So Hillary's not got it in the bag either.

Me: No, but she's got a lot more going for her than money.  Unless something big happens between now and then, as it did in 2007, she'll be well positioned with Democratic office holders and activists for a strong run.  She'll raise money for them and they for her; to say nothing about the pro staff and volunteers she'll pick up in the process.

CHG: What about those 501 groups?

Me: Yeah you're spot on, just another way for the money to be raised and spent between the players.

CHG: Well good talking to you, take it easy bro.

Me: Uh, yeah.  You too, um dude.


The money primary and invisible primary are often conflated, but I think we need to carefully separate the concepts, and be very clear about the nuances of money in the process.  All things considered, I'm all for retiring the use of the term "money primary" all together as it obfuscates more than it clarifies.

For starters, the invisible primary clearly involves money, but it's not determinative.  The term "money primary" evokes a candidate centered process, reminiscent of David Broder's famous observation that politicians are essentiallyself-nominated and financed political entrepreneurs.  This feeds into the widely, yet wrongly held belief that money is everything in politics.  Central to the concept of the invisible primary is that the party - broadly conceived - is attempting to triangulate on an acceptable candidate.  It's as much - if not more - about the various constituencies and officials within the party looking for a good nominee as it is self-starters looking to tap into the organizational and financial resources of the party's principle players.

By conceiving of the pre-primary period as simply the money primary, we lose a great deal of what's taking place within the party.  A commonly held belief about Gov Tim Pawlenty's hasty exit after the Iowa straw poll was him losing the money chase.  While his fundraising clearly was falling behind Romney's, we now know that his real trouble was finding bannermen amongst well placed Republicans.  While there's clearly some simultaneity with money and party support going on, history shows us that party support is the critical factor.  And as I suggested to the coffee house guy in Park City, the entrepreneur like Dean in '04, who pads his own pockets nicely, but fails to pad the pockets of others in the invisible primary, will probably take an inglorious early exit.

1 comment:

  1. I would like to second your motion to retire the term "money primary." I've always seen the Howard Dean vs John Kerry stories of 2003 and early 2004 as a great example of this. The money coverage predicted a Dean romp in Iowa but more subtle coverage would see that Dean was having major problems making inroads with party insiders and Kerry, while low on cash, had raised a lot and could raise more. This type of coverage would have been much more helpful.