Celebrities, Lies And Outsiders: How This Election Surprised One Political Scientist

Jun 21, 2016
Originally published on June 22, 2016 9:54 am

In the runup to this election season, The Party Decides seemed to be on every political science nerd's reading list. The 2008 book by political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller laid out how the invisible primary — party elites' behind-the-scenes machinations before primary season — plays a heavy role in shaping nominations. One big idea: When party members line up definitively behind one candidate (in the form of endorsements) during that invisible primary, that candidate wins.

But the parties found themselves threatened this year. The GOP didn't decisively pick one person, but it quite clearly did not decide on Donald Trump. He received zero major GOP endorsements until well after the first primaries, and yet here he is, at the top of the GOP's November ticket. Likewise, Bernie Sanders always trailed Hillary Clinton by a long shot in terms of the number of endorsements, yet he gave her a tougher fight than almost anyone expected.

We talked to Cohen about how he views the 2016 election — if it's changed how he thinks, as well as how parties could again strengthen their grips on nominations. Our Q&A is below (edited for length and clarity).

Danielle Kurtzleben: As a political scientist, what about the 2016 election has changed how you think or challenged what you considered conventional wisdom?

Marty Cohen: I think the extent to which politics has become celebrity-driven has just been epitomized and reached its logical conclusion in this election cycle. I remember 20-some years ago having some friends in D.C., and they either worked on campaigns or they were just going to school, and they were starting to take pictures with politicians.

Politicians started to feel to me like celebrities. That was like 20 years ago, and I think we've just steadily continued that trend. And it's obviously epitomized in Donald Trump being the ultimate celebrity politician.

The extent to which celebrity is prized in our society and has infiltrated politics is shocking to me. And the extent to which the mistruths and the falsehoods of the Internet have been mainstreamed into American politics, mostly through Donald Trump, but also through Carly Fiorina and her assertions regarding that Planned Parenthood video that never existed.

Things that are very easy to debunk are gaining currency in politics, and we've lost the gatekeeper. We've lost the ability to have rational conversations based on facts, and falsehoods are just not checked. And so I guess that has surprised me that we've gotten to this point. And I think it's not new; I think it's been building. It's just kind of exploded this year.

OK, so the logical follow-up to that is: How do we get out of it?

The way you get out of it is if it results in disaster, and people are shocked into, "This is not what we want for our country and for our politics." And sometimes you need like a shock to the system.

And if Donald Trump were to be elected president, I think that could be a sufficient shock to sort of move us back toward — not necessarily to what was a noble past in politics, but clearly a time when there was some more collegiality, there was some more bipartisanship, there was some more realization that there were common problems that needed to be solved. And that you could trust that people were basing their views on facts.

How to get out of it, I don't know. I mean, a lot of things have gone into this trend: polarization and ultrapartisanship. Some of it, we're not going to be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

You can't get rid of the Facebook echo chamber, I guess.

Yeah. And the proliferation of outlets, and that sort of thing. Gerrymandering is something, campaign finance, the fact that all these safe districts represent people who are more concerned with their extreme flank than with appealing to the center. That can be changed. And it certainly could change in some states.

But I don't know if it would have the desired effect. So that's not clear what that sort of reform would be.

So let's talk about your book. For the people who haven't read it, give us a quick summation. What do you mean by "The Party Decides"?

We believe that the party consists of a group of what we call "intense policy demanders": people who want something out of politics and want policies. They pay attention to politics. They put a lot of effort into it. And they're looking for a return on their investment of time, effort and often money. One of the things that they do in order to try to assure themselves of getting favorable policy is to try to control their nomination. It's much easier to get a friendly candidate into office than to try to negotiate with someone who's already there.

Parties throughout the years have always tried — through negotiations and compromises and conversations — to figure out which [presidential] candidate is most acceptable to the broadest range of the party factions. And once they've figured that out, they try to put their resources behind that person so that they can become the nominee and present a united front in the general election.

You focus on the importance of endorsements. I'm wondering — Jeb Bush started out with a big endorsement lead, and Clinton did, too, but then she got a run for her money — does this year's election change how you think?

First of all, on the Republican side, we collected the data now, and as far as endorsements are concerned, no one had a mass of endorsements. There was a very, very wide spread of endorsements between six or seven candidates. No one was at all close to being the runaway leader in endorsements.

And compared with years past, very few people relatively were endorsing before Iowa. So the party largely sat on the sidelines on the Republican side.

There's a number of reasons we think that occurred. But one thing for sure is that Donald Trump, the eventual nominee, didn't have any endorsements.

So it wasn't that someone was the leader in endorsements and was overtaken and blown away by Donald Trump. There was no real party consensus at all this time around on the Republican side, in complete contrast to the Democratic side, where everybody was endorsing, and they were all endorsing Hillary.

So that's the facts on the ground in terms of the endorsement derby.

What this election cycle tells us is that parties try to unify behind a broadly acceptable candidate, but there's also the appeal of factional candidates.

Donald Trump we don't think of necessarily as a factional candidate because he doesn't really represent a faction of the Republican Party, but he attracted a certain type of voter that is well-represented within the Republican Party.

So maybe the GOP didn't line up behind one candidate, but it certainly seems like a lot of them lined up against another candidate, in the sense that people weren't endorsing Trump. Why didn't that stop him?

I think you found that for the longest time, they didn't do anything really about it. They didn't start running ads against him until after Iowa. They didn't start coalescing behind other candidates until after Iowa. And while they didn't necessarily want Trump, they didn't make a concerted effort to stop him until it was too late.

So is this year, with all of its outsider candidates, a one-off, or is it part of a pattern? We've had a few of these outsider or anti-establishent candidates in the past few years, aided by technology, like with Howard Dean and then Barack Obama, to a lesser degree.

There's a real possibility that we're already into a different era ... that probably began in 2004. And like you said, Trump may be a little bit of a fluke of a candidacy. But Bernie Sanders has sort of continued the trend of online fundraising, online advertising, the ability to mount an insurgent campaign without party support.

Obama was much less an outsider even than Sanders, in terms of insider support.

Right. Obama spoke at the [2004] convention.

But still, you're right. It's certainly [about] challenging the establishment favorite. The most recent cycles since 2000, which seemed to be the epitome of the, if you want to call it now, the old system, where [George W.] Bush and [Al] Gore racked up the endorsements and really sort of coasted to the nomination.

Since then, you look at the Internet, you look at Fox News and the 24-hour news channels, and on the Republican side more recently, just the general fracturing, the inability to create consensus. The Democrats are much more of a consensus-based party right now than Republicans. Republicans have a lot of factions to them that are difficult — especially, the people that Trump appealed to already had splintered off as early as 2009, 2010, with the Tea Party phenomenon.

And sometimes it's harder for parties to unify than it is in other periods.

So if things are changing, and there is that growing ability to, as you put it, mount an insurgent campaign, does that weaken your theory at all?

We still think we described that period of time pretty well. I don't think that it's unthinkable that we could return to another period of relative party insider control.

The Republicans are going to, I think, make a big effort to not let something like this happen again. So you can forgive them for maybe not remembering what can happen if you let the voters decide, and they let the voters decide by being passive in the invisible primary, and they got what they got.

There's calls on the Democratic side to make the process more open, and even on the Republican side, too. But there's going to be a lot of people looking at Donald Trump's nomination as a cautionary tale of what happens if you don't get your act together as a political party and try to control your nomination.

So there could be a backlash to that. And you could see tighter insider control return, quite possibly.

My inclination during this campaign has been to think, "Man, parties are getting weaker." Do you think that's true?

Parties definitely have gone through spells where they've been weaker and strong. You have progressive reforms in the 19th and 20th century that were designed specifically to weaken parties.

But parties rebounded. And then the McGovern-Fraser [Commission] reforms of the late '60s and early '70s tried to take control of the nomination process and give it to the people. And for a couple of cycles, it was wild and crazy, and the voters were clearly deciding, and then the party readjusted.

So I think you're right that the pendulum does swing. But that's what [parties] do, is control the nominations. That's kind of their reason for being.

The original title of our book was "Beating Reform," and that's kind of what we had in mind is that parties had beat reform in the 1960s and then kind of reasserted themselves. So are they going to be able to beat back technology and beat back media? Maybe they'll figure out a way to do that.

It seems like the relationship between candidate and party used to be more symbiotic, whereas now, if I'm Donald Trump, maybe I can say, "I don't need the Republican Party as much as I might have in, say, 1996." Or is it just that the Republican brand is that important?

He might think he doesn't need the Republican Party, but all the criticism from the Republican Party is going to take its toll. The Republican Party at some point can cut bait, essentially, and let him go and focus on as best they can the House and Senate. In which case it would be very difficult for him to win — even more difficult than it might otherwise would be.

But I think you do need the party apparatus. You need the party brand. And parties again are uniquely qualified to do certain things, and that is to win elections and mobilize voters and to set the agenda. So for him to go it alone essentially, I don't think that's a winning strategy.

The way we're trying to think about it — we're working on a piece that we're going to be publishing in the fall — is there are incentives for parties to unify, and there's also a goal, an important reason to unify — to create party unity — but there are also incentives and pushes toward factionalism. And factionalism won on the Republican side this time.

So maybe since 2004, it's harder for parties to unify around one particular candidate and shepherd them to the nomination.

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