I don’t often disagree with political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, but when I do it is usually over one subject: the role of “elites” versus voters in the presidential nominating process. Jonathan often makes good points on this subject, and helps bring some clarity to it by treating “elites” as including powerful issue advocacy groups and committed activists, not just some shadowy band of Beltway pundits and money bundlers.
But in a recent New Republic piece, Jonathan goes too far in dismissing the “visible primary” of caucuses and primary elections in favor of the “invisible primary” of “party actors” which precedes it. He does so in order to minimize the important of Mitt Romney and Rick Perry’s “liberal heresies,” choosing Romney’s Massachusetts health plan and Perry’s 1988 endorsement of Al Gore for president as the leading candidates’ most serious problem with the party “base.” I actually don’t agree the Gore endorsement is at all Perry’s biggest “heresy” (it took place six presidential election cycles ago, when Perry was still a Democrat and Gore was generally perceived as the most moderate-to-conservative in the Democratic field); I’d say his position on immigration, and to some extent his denunciations of Social Security, are bigger problems for him with “the base.”
But Jonathan’s broader argument is that by the time Republican elites have narrowed the field or even chosen a nominee, they will have found ways to take their favored candidates’ heresies off the table or rationalize them.
Now obviously, if all the elites have done is to narrow down the field to, say, Perry and Romney, then if anything these two candidates’ heresies will get even more attention than ever from their rivals’ advocates as a competitive environment intensifies. So the only way they get taken off the table is for an actual nominee to be all-but-selected before Iowans caucus next February or January. And indeed, Jonathan seems to think this will probably be the case:
It certainly is possible that voters could reject the choice of candidates they’re being offered; some Republican operatives probably worry that voters will reject Romney on the basis of his religion regardless of what opinion leaders say, or Perry because they fear losing their Social Security benefits (a far less symbolic issue). And in the unlikely event that party actors split and we get a long, drawn-out contest, then voters really will choose between two viable candidates with little or conflicting guidance from visible party actors. If that happens, these issues (or anything else) might make the difference. But the most likely outcome is that party actors winnow the field down to one real candidate by Iowa, and that neither of these issues is particularly important in making that choice.
Now I’m not sure he means this pre-selection will probably occur before or as a result of the Iowa Caucuses, but it’s not a very good bet either way. Indeed, since the emergence of the Iowa Caucuses in the 1970s, the GOP nomination (in contests not involving an incumbent) has never been decided before or by Iowa. If you had to pick a “decider” state, it would probably be South Carolina, the third (or since 2008, the fourth) state, which played a crucial role in 1988, 1996, 2000 and 2008. Sure, you can claim that one candidate had a big advantage earlier on, but losses in Iowa by Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and John McCain (who barely competed in the state) in 2008 threw off some of those initial calculations, as did New Hampshire losses by Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. And a meaningful role for actual voters does not strictly depend on a deep split among elite “party actors” (though they often do split). Virtually every significant power center in the Republican Party backed George W. Bush in 2000, and it required a white-knuckle/bare-knuckle comeback by Bush in South Carolina to head off an uprising by John McCain.
As for 2012, it does look like “party actors” are going to be divided between Romney and Perry well into the “visible primary,” unless something big changes between now and the end of the year, in no small part because of nervousness over the kind of “heresies” Jonathan tends to dismiss. Some Republicans think RomneyCare will make it difficult for Mitt to effectively exploit the unpopularity of ObamaCare in a general election campaign; some also think Perry’s Social Security rhetoric would make him exceptionally vulnerable against Obama. And there are “party actors” who don’t much trust either pol because of the inconsistency shown by their “heresies.”
So yeah, backers of these two candidates really do need to worry about their vulnerabilities during the nominating process, particularly when actual voters get involved and the real deal goes down.