Saturday, June 27, 2009

Is Next in Line a Myth?

...or has FiveThirtyEight's Ed Kilgore taken what he calls an oversimplification and applied a very narrow definition to it as means of mythbusting?

The concept in question -- the myth regarding the GOP selection of presidential nominees based on who is next in line -- certainly is a simplification, but the best theories are parsimonious: simple while being powerfully explanatory or predictive. The best way to disprove any theory is to narrowly define its concepts. All this just seems like a measurement issue to me. If you narrowly define someone's next-in-line status as simply having run before (and done reasonably well), then sure, you'll be able to find instances where that "was trumped" by having been a vice presidential candidate or having name recognition or money or grassroots support.

But this is where I differ with Kilgore. All those other factors are part of this. The theory isn't next-in-line (as I supposed it has sadly been dubbed and poorly described) so much as it is heir apparent; someone who has been there (whether as a vice president, vice presidential candidate or presidential nomination candidate), and has some name recognition, money and grassroots support because of it. And this is how I've approached this concept when I've brought it up in this space in the past; as something more broadly defined.

And I bet you're saying to yourself, "This heir apparent sounds an awful lot like a frontrunner." That's because it is. It's the same thing. And as William Mayer has pointed out time and time again, frontrunners usually win in the post-reform period (the McGovern-Fraser reforms that served as the impetus for the system of presidential nominations our country's two major parties employ). [Yes, there are exceptions to that rule as perhaps you were able to glean from the title to Mayer's article.]

Fine, but what does this have to do with the so-called next-in-line theory? Well, much of this has to do with the choices given voters when the primaries and caucuses begin anew every four years. Kilgore alludes to this in his post, referring to the "psychological assertions about the nature of Republicans as opposed to Democrats." But this next-in-line, or heir apparent or frontrunner or whatever you want to call it theory incorporates (or should) what's happening in the invisible primary period between presidential elections because a lot this has to do with what the party establishment is doing behind the scenes before the first ballot is cast in Iowa. This isn't about voters so much is it is about the rules and/or actions of the parties' elites (see Cohen, et al. -- The Party Decides -- for more on the latter).

The thing that separates Republicans from Democrats in this area is the combination of a more homogeneous base of elites and the winner-take-all rules in the delegate selection events. The Republicans just haven't had as much of a "big tent" issue among the various factions of their party as the Democrats have over the last nearly four decades. Have there been divisions at the elite level around particular candidates vying for any given Republican nomination? Yes, but they have been more muted than on the Democratic side. [Again, there are exceptions. 2008 comes to mind.] But Republican candidates who "have been there" have just been better able to take advantage of their greater number of connections to those elites (and the elites vice versa), their endorsements and the attendant financial windfall. Republican elites simply line up behind those they know, whether that means a consensus behind George W. Bush (that's how the former president fits into this) or a slim plurality for John McCain. There's a relationship there. The candidate knows he or she needs the elite level support to win the nomination and the establishment within the party needs a candidate who can get elected and push the agenda of the party.

So this isn't a question of narrowly defining "next-in-line" so much as it is about how that status works in concert (and overlaps) with other factors (like electability in McCain's case) to make Republican's who are "next-in-line" more likely to emerge as presidential nominees than Democrats in the same situation. That status, though, is the tie that binds the contested nominations of the post-reform era together on the GOP side.

What does that portend for 2012? Both Romney and Huckabee (and even a lagging Palin) have a leg up on others that will contend (or are already quietly contending) for the nomination. All three are logical heirs to the next-in-line label. If, however, the party decides, as it did in 2000, that Romney and Huckabee and Palin are dispensable in the way that Alexander and Forbes and Quayle were, the party is likely to gather around someone who has some institutional strength within the party (Dare I say Haley Barbour? Not without repercussions, I guess.).

As of right now, though, those who are next in line have the best shot at the nomination in 2012.


Recent Posts:
On the Agenda at the Democratic Change Commission Meeting

GOP Governors in the White House?

The Answer is Yes


Jack said...

I was hoping you'd decide there was too much material for a mere comment.

Okay, I'm going to ramble again. I can see both sides of the argument. I hate making blanket judgments from past primary results because there have been so few of them. (We should have a presidential primary every year for the sake of sample sizes.)

Republicans do most certainly work behind the scenes for their candidates. And Democrats have superdelegates.

The fact that Republicans haven't had a true insurgent win in many years doesn't mean that it can't happen, or even that it's terribly unlikely to happen. There just hasn't been an insurgent candidate with the political skills and other assets that, say, Obama had in 2008. It really takes an incredibly skilled candidate to win as an insurgent That said, you're probably right in that it's tougher for Republicans (though I really don't know enough about how the insiders in either party work to make a good judgment).

We'll see what happens 2012. If Palin runs, it will be a perfect test of this theory.

Robert said...

Good points, Jack, but the last insurgent candidate that had skills was Goldwater. I'm not sure you can classify Palin as an insurgent. Nomination as a VP candidate gives her credibility within the party. Obama wasn't the only Democratic insurgent candidate. Clinton, Dukakis, Carter, and McGovern were not exactly establishment candidates. McCarty and Kennedy almost took over the party. I find it hard to see an insurgent winning the Republican nomination.

Jack said...

Palin is, in my view, an insurgent, because she has the two essential characteristics of an insurgent, possibly even more so than Obama: the rank-and-file love her and the establishment hates here.

I do concede, despite my instincts to the contrary, that it is probably substantially easier for a candidate who's not the next-in-line/heir apparent in the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. There's just enough historical evidence to mostly convince me. A part of me is still skeptical because I've never fully bought the reasons that have been given for this phenomenon.