The other day we had a bit of a discussion in the comments about the 2012 election, and Jay Anderson expressed concern about Mitt Romney’s possible nomination, noting that the GOP has a penchant for nominating old-time retreads. That is a fairly good point. With the exception of George W. Bush, every single Republican nominee after Goldwater was either someone who had run an unsuccessful campaign previously or was the sitting incumbent. Nixon of course lost the general in 1960, Reagan had a failed primary campaign in 1976 (and a lower profile one in 1968), Bush the elder lost to Reagan in 1980, Dole was a several time loser, and McCain lost in 2000. Then there was Ford, who was a sitting incumbent.
On the surface, it seems a bit odd to suggest that the Republican party really chooses anyone. After all, this is the age of primaries, and it is the electorate, not party pooh-bahs that select nominees, right? Or is that really the case? With the exception of Reagan in 1980, each of the nominees in the primary era was what you might dub the establishment pick. And what is the establishment? Party leaders, other elected GOP officials, Beltway pundits, etc. I think that I would not be going out on a limb in suggesting that had the nominee been selected in the pre-1972 manner, the result would have been no different in any year again with the possible exception of 1980. In fact, the older system arguably produced as many if not more “outsider” nominations than the new one – Goldwater in 1964 being the prime example.
So this got me to wondering. Are primaries really done deals before they even start? Another way of putting it is, does the emergence of a clear establishment candidate send a signal to GOP primary voters that steers them towards a preferred candidate?
It would be a difficult thing to measure. One potential way of measuring the effect of establishment preference would be to see if there is an immediate upswing in a candidate’s fund-raising post-major endorsement. Polling numbers are unreliable, especially during the course of primary season, but that might be another way to check to see if establishment endorsements have sway.
Another question – does the same hold true for the Democrats? Does the “establishment” candidate have an edge? Well, there the evidence is a bit murkier. I would suggest that, at the very least, McGovern, Carter, and Obama would not have been the selections of an insider party convention or caucus. Even Bill Clinton might not have become the nominee under the old method of selecting candidates. Does this suggest that Democratic primary voters are less swayed by their party’s establishment preferences, or is this just the result of an unusual set of circumstances?
One last thing. Considering the number of incumbent Republican officials that have already been bounced in primaries, on top of other clear establishment preferences going down to defeat (the Kentucky Senate race being one such example of the latter), are we headed towards a new era where establishment preferences no longer hold as much sway, assuming of course that they do currently?
These are all questions to ponder, and perhaps an enterprising individual out there could crunch some of the numbers. It almost sounds like a project for a Political Science class. Just credit Professor Zummo for giving you the idea.