Did the Parties Decide?


The 2016 presidential primaries produced an unexpected result in one of the two major parties (iStock photo).

July 26, 2016 — We last spoke with Hans Noel, an associate professor in Georgetown College’s Department of Government, in January. Noel is a co-author of The Party Decides, an influential book describing a theory of presidential politics in which party “elites” wield the most influence over each major party’s presidential election nominee.

With both the Democrats and the Republicans officially choosing their nominees this month, we caught up with Professor Noel to discuss the impact of the 2016 primary — especially the Republicans’ seemingly unlikely nomination of businessman Donald Trump — and the future of American politics.

Georgetown College: How does 2016 change The Party Decides theory, if at all?

Hans Noel: For The Party Decides, 2016 changes things and it doesn’t. 

The book was written in response to work by a very savvy political scientist Nelson Polsby, who said that the new rules instituted in 1972 would favor candidates with narrow factional appeal, even personal appeal, over consensus candidates. Candidates like Jimmy Carter. But when we wrote the book, we noted that there weren’t really any Jimmy Carters since Carter. Why not? The party leaders had figured out a way to influence the field and advantage their choice in the primaries. All they had to do was agree on someone, and they usually did.

In 2016, Republicans didn’t do that. And when they don’t, then Nelson is right. But between 1976 to 2016, what he predicted didn’t happen. We clearly overstated how easy it was for the party to solve its coordination problem, and we need to think hard about why that is. We think some technological changes and some changes in the media environment matter. The invisible primary isn’t so invisible any more. Now we need to look more carefully at all of that.

But the book is still right in a lot of ways. Two in particular for 2016. First, the book helps diagnose what happened with the Republicans. It’s not that Trump overpowered the party so much as the internal divisions in the party — that existed before Trump — made it hard for them to coordinate like they usually do. Trump didn’t win. The party lost. 

And second, Hillary Clinton’s nomination fits the argument in the book better than almost any other. She won despite a credible challenger, and she won because the party helped her out, in all the ways we discuss. 

GC: A year ago today, who would you have expected to be the nominee of each party?

HN: Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton. Clinton for the reasons she did win.

Rubio because he seemed well positioned to bridge the two main factions in the party — the party regulars, who loved Jeb Bush but loathed Ted Cruz, and the conservatives who loved Cruz but loathed Bush. The party eventually came around to Rubio, but it was far, far too late.

GC: Do you have any ideas for how and why the Democratic primary seemed to fall in line with the "party decides" theory, while the Republicans did something so drastically different?

HN: I think either party could have these issues. For the past few cycles, the internal divisions within the Republican Party have been especially powerful, while the divisions among Democrats have been less so. So Democrats had an easier time coordinating. Despite the impressions of many, Clinton is basically a liberal, a progressive, like most Democrats. 

But that could change, if the less compromising elements in the liberal coalition become more like the Tea Party. Some Sanders supporters seem like that. And it could be the Democrats next cycle who struggle.

GC: If Donald Trump loses in November, will the Republican Party's electoral and governing coalition continue to exist?

HN: I just spent the week in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention, and we saw a lot of signs of life for the original coalition. People were talking about the same kinds of outreach issues they were talking about after 2012 and 2014. They were talking about down-ballot mobilization issues. There has been a fight within the Republicans between the Cruz people and the Bush people, for lack of better terms, for a while now. That’s not going away. But the law and order faction that Trump has tapped into is becoming bigger. That won’t fade away if Trump loses. 

If Trump wins, then his influence will have a longer legacy.

GC: Do you expect Gary Johnson — or any other minor-party candidate — to win a meaningful enough share of the vote to swing the election?

HN: I think Johnson might. Without any third-party, it looks to be a pretty close race this year. So even a small share could matter. And Johnson is about perfect for appealing to many Republicans. He and Bill Weld are themselves Republicans. They aren’t too radically libertarian. They’re sensible. Social conservatives like Cruz might not like him, but they still might find him closer than Trump. All it would take is for Johnson to sap more votes from one side, presumably Trump, and it would have an effect.

The more interesting way Johnson could matter would be if he actually wins some states, and that leaves neither Trump nor Clinton with a majority. It’s hard to see that happening, exactly, but it’s not impossible. Then the House would decide, and likely that would go to Trump, but possibly to Johnson. Still, that’s a really unlikely scenario.

GC: Assuming the Republicans and Democrats continue to be the main players in American politics, do you think an ideological realignment is impending? If so, along what lines?

HN: I’m always hesitant to predict big structural changes. The main shift in the Republican coalition is an emphasis on the law-and-order, authoritarian streak that has long been in the party, from Nixon to Guiliani. That is being privileged over some of the social issues, like opposition to gay rights, and some of the economic issues. But that’s a subtle change, and I don’t know that it won’t change back. Among Democrats, we may see an increase in economic equality issues, but these have long been important in the party, so it’s not really a realignment as a renewed emphasis. 

I don’t think the Republicans will become the full on party of the working class, because the working class is becoming less white. The white working class is a shrinking constituency.

GC: Do you expect future politicians to have any success mimicking Donald Trump's politics and/or campaigning?

HN: Some may. Trump is pretty unique. It’s hard to think of another famous businessman who is similarly brash and appeals to the same kind of voters. But certainly some people might try. Elon Musk has a big following with some of the same people who like Trump. 

I think some of the Trump children might well enter politics as well. They’ve shown an interest in it this week.

Interview by Patrick Curran.