Recently in the political science blogosphere there's been a venting on some of the enduring "zombie" myths. Despite the good work of several political scientists outreach towards journalists, and a warm reception to that outreach by many reporters, some of these myths just tend to stick around, the self-hair pulling and head bashing of the academy notwithstanding. Though I missed the tweet that started the avalanche over at Jon Bernstein's blog, and thus missed my chance to weigh in, I'll take the opportunity to throw out a few of my pet peeves in the coverage and perception of the invisible primary.
1. Money ≠ Success. Political scientists have known this for years. While I'm still not sure about money buying happiness (I'll volunteer to be in the experimental group on that test), we political scientists are quite certain that it cannot buy elections. Granted, much of what we know about money and electoral success comes from general elections, which are far more predictable than primary elections making campaigning and spending less important. Still, presidential primaries are national events, requiring a solid network of volunteers in state after state to be viable. While money can certainly buy some resources necessary for nation-wide network building, it still requires help that cannot be purchased. Support from office holders in the form of endorsements is key. Throw in the fact that it's these office holders that are actively seeking out good candidates in the invisible primary, we're left in a position where, last I checked, these aren't on the auction block.
2. Self-financed candidates are toast. I mean carbonized, burnt to a crisp toast. These folks are usually self-financed for a reason, they just don't have the networks necessary to win over party activists and their financial constituents. Even when they get a degree of funds from other donors, their lack of political experience and allies just leaves them at a systematic disadvantage. While this is something of an apples/oranges comparison, contrast the 2002 gubernatorial campaign of Mitt Romney with the 2010 campaigns of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whiman. Romney, who at that point had only an election loss or two as the sum total of his political career, was actively recruited invisible primary style by a handful of Massachusetts Republican activists. While the organizational ranks of Bay State Republicans is admittedly scant relative to the Democrats, they had a successful string of Republican gubernatorial runs. However, they were dissatisfied with the prospect of incumbent Jane Swift (who assumed office as a result of Paul Cellucci resigning to become ambassador to the Great White North) running in her own right, and unceremoniously dumped her for Romney. Fiorina and Whitman were classic cases of self-financed candidates that hit a ceiling, pushing the bounds of what money can buy you politically. At the state level it may in fact get you a nomination, but it won't get you too far when running for your party's nomination for the presidency. Just ask President Forbes.
3. Super-PACs and sugar daddies ain't everything either. While it's clear that super PACs are changing the dynamics of campaign funding, and they've yet to come into their own in terms of strategies and effectiveness, they're still an improper measurement of success in the invisible primary. Again, the invisible primary is an elite driven affair. Gregory Koger is spot on in his assessment that mega-donors a type of elite whose power is becoming more important at the expense of traditional party players through the ability to buoy poor candidates like Gingrich that would have been weeded out earlier in the process a few cycles ago. But at least for now, their donations are hardly determinative. And as his MoF colleague Richard Skinner points out, there's bound to be counter spending of super PACs and sugar daddies who are more party oriented to match the more candidate centered sugar daddies supporting the fringier personalities.
4. Ignore the polls. Political scientists as a class have been saying this for as long as polls have been taken at this stage of the election. As the invisible primary is largely, well, invisible, preferences of voters in the early stages have little predictive power at this stage. All the things that invisible primary success can bring a candidate (endorsements, party activist/network support, greater news coverage) aren't going to be apparent to the average voter until a few months ahead of Iowa, so there's no use asking them about their preferences that far out. Couple this with the fact that we have a ridiculously crowded Republican field at this moment, you're just not going to get much utility from asking voters their preferences right now. While they are readily available to busy journalists rushing to make a deadline (as opposed to where the real invisible primary action is), it's sour low-hanging fruit.
5. Especially those damned straw polls. Republican nominees Gramm, Bachmann, Robertson, Bauer, and Paul can tell you how prescient these things are, whether they're of CPAC or Iowa flavors. The events that surround them also tend to be terrible indicators of invisible primary success, since the crowds at these events are hardly representative of all the key invisible primary players. While they can be fun to watch, or indeed soul sucking experiences where we lose degrees of faith in democracy itself, they're not going to give you any real sense of who's going to come out on top in the nomination.