Does The Party Decide? Explaining the Trump Phenomenon

Longtime readers know that I have periodically expressed skepticism regarding “The Party Decides” thesis. That is the argument, made most thoroughly by the book of that title,  that party leaders act in effect as gatekeepers who control who wins their party’s nomination. They do so through a variety of signaling mechanisms, such as endorsements, or by steering financial contributions, that collectively help winnow the candidate field and, ideally, focuses voter support behind a single candidate – preferably one who shares the party’s dominant ideological perspective and can still win the general election. Moreover, much of that winnowing takes place prior to any actual voting for party delegates, as party leaders work behind the scenes to eliminate unwanted candidates as soon as possible.

My skepticism rests on three essential points. First, the authors use what I consider to be a rather generous definition of “party”, or intense policy demanders. This allows them to claim that, for the most part, party leaders have retained control of the nominating process despite ostensibly significant changes in how delegates are selected, as in the movement from a convention-centered nominating process to the current post-McGovern-Fraser emphasis on caucus and primaries. (By the way, the book does a wonderful job providing an historical overview of the evolution of the presidential nominating process, which is an important reason why I continue to assign it in my elections class.) A second concern – and perhaps an unfair one – is the difficulty the authors have in showing how this coordinating process actually takes place. As far as I can tell, there’s no smoking memo where party leaders confirm which candidates they will support. So one must infer the existence of a party-driven winnowing process.

Of course, as I tell my students, when it comes to explaining political behavior, you don’t beat something with nothing. If the party isn’t deciding, then who is? My sense is that at least since the McGovern-Fraser reforms, it is more typically the voters who decide – at least those voters who participate in the series of caucuses and primaries that constitute the modern nominating process.  Admittedly, they are not generally representative of the broader public but neither are they the equivalent, at least from my perspective, of the traditional “party bosses” who used to control blocs of delegates. However, voters aren’t free to choose just any candidate.  Instead, they choose from a candidate menu that is heavily influenced by the media’s perception of which candidates are truly viable. The media does not do well with candidate complexity, and so it moves early to simplify the narrative by classifying candidates based on expected strength.  For example, think of the segmentation of the Republican debate participants by the various cable networks into a “grown up” and “kiddie table”. Under this alternative scenario, party elites don’t decide so much as they anticipate who the likely nominee will be based on their read of the political landscape and potential candidates. When the indicators all point in the direction of a particular candidate, party leaders endorse early, in order to position themselves for any benefits that may accrue from being among the first to jump on the winning candidate’s bandwagon. But when the crystal ball is a bit foggier, they wait to endorse, heeding the famous adage to “don’t back no losers.” It is precisely that uncertainty, I believe, that has caused many Republican leaders to hold back on endorsing anyone during the current election cycle. It is not, as some political scientists claim, that they have simply decided not to endorse – it is that they don’t know who to endorse.

Of course, one can’t possibly do full justice in a blog post to the Party Decides thesis, which rests on a slew of data and careful analysis – you really should read the book and decide for yourself. For what it is worth, most of my students who have experience working on campaigns seem not to buy the argument.  However, I haven’t presented any evidence indicating that my alternative take is more plausible (although my students and I are working on it!)

“But what about Donald Trump?” you may ask.  With his commanding victory yesterday in Nevada, Trump has now won three of the four Republican nominating contests to date.  Moreover, despite not having the support of the Republican Party (at least not by the usual indicators) he seems to be gaining strength and appears poised to do quite well on Super Tuesday.  Doesn’t he disprove the Party Decide thesis?

Perhaps.  But I’m in no position to make that case! I often tell my students that in contrast to the general election, political scientists have a more difficult time predicting the outcome of the nominating process – there are too many candidates and decision points, and the party label doesn’t serve as a useful decision cue. But this year I made it quite clear that I was certain about one thing: Donald Trump would not win the Republican nomination. Indeed, on the day he made his announcement that he was running, I wrote what I believed to be a very clever and amusing tongue-firmly-in-cheek post explaining why I was breaking my long tradition of not voting in presidential elections in order to cast my ballot for The Donald.  Alas, it was too clever by half and, at this point, the laugh is on me. Make no mistake about it: Donald Trump is clearly the front-runner for the Republican nomination. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Note that I disagree with my colleagues who claim the Republican Party has implicitly allowed him to take the lead. I just think they don’t have any tools to stop him. He clearly doesn’t need their endorsements to win – I think one member of Congress has endorsed him so far although if my theory is correct I expect more members to get on the Trump bandwagon. Nor does he need party funding. Indeed, he has proved a master at getting free publicity and he has spent comparatively little on advertising. Leading party members and fellow candidates – most notably Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and poor Jeb! Bush – have openly criticized him. But it seems to have no effect – instead, Trump uses that opposition as a selling point to his followers, as I’ve seen firsthand at his rallies.

And it is those rallies that, to me, hold the key to understanding Trump’s success. I’ve described them elsewhere,  but a couple of points are worth highlighting. First, it is commonplace to describe Trump’s followers as “angry.” But his rallies are anything but an expression of anger – in fact, audience members seem to take particular delight in hearing Trump explain how he will make America Great Again. These are festive events, replete with vendors hawking Trump memorabilia, musicians playing, and crowd members chatting excitedly despite lengthy lines and often inclement weather.  Audiences even participate at key moments, as when Trump asks “Who is going to pay for the wall?” and they scream out in unison “Mexico!” The second point is that Trump does not talk down to his audience – instead, he takes their views seriously, and by expressing those views in plain, often politically-incorrect (and admittedly superficial) talking points, he appears to validate them. Yes, part of his support is driven by economic discontent – for many middle and lower-income Americans, wages have been stagnant for some time, manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and the future holds little promise of improvement. But he is winning across all income groups, although his support is  stronger among lower- and middle-income voters.

In addition to his policy stances, then, part of his appeal is that he appears to be on his audience’s side – he doesn’t try to excuse or explain their beliefs as an illustration of intolerance or bigotry. Instead, he says they are right to hold those beliefs, and if elected president he is going to act on them. At the same time he doesn’t pretend to be one of them. Instead, he flaunts his wealth, his education, his beautiful wife and his “New York values” lifestyle. In so doing, he comes across as authentic. But he also says, “See – I’ve made it. Don’t you want to make it too?” They understand that Trump doesn’t have to be doing this – he tells them as much in his standard stump speech – but that he really does want to make America, and by extension, his audience, great again. And they really believe he will – or at least they are willing to take that chance. After all, what do they have to lose?

Yes, we need to be careful in overstating the extent of Trump’s support – but it appears to be growing, despite high unfavorable ratings. And it is not immediately clear who the alternative candidate will be. Despite repeated media attempts to prop him up, Marco Rubio hasn’t come close to challenging Trump since his overhyped third-place finish in Iowa. Ted Cruz has a solid core of conservative followers, but he’s shown little ability to expand beyond that base. Maybe John Kasich will take off, but so far his brand of sunny optimism and social conservatism hasn’t caught on, despite a strong resume. And Ben Carson’s support continues to dwindle.

So what will it be?  Will The Party decide to back The Donald, or to block him? At this point, it doesn’t seem to matter.


  1. Here’s an idea I have seen kicked a round a little: maybe the Democrats still really do “decide” as they seem to have done for a while (see the party rallying around Kerry quickly after his Iowa win in 2004, Gore in 2000, or how Bill Clinton was able to coast to the nomination despite winning only 1 of the first 11 contests in 92′) but something has changed for the Republicans. After all Hillary this cycle seems like a classic example of the party decides: elected officials started rallying around her early on and she appears to have forced her main rivals (Biden, Warren etc.) out of the race before they even had a chance to declare. This left her facing a protest candidate with little party support who she seems to have now pretty easily dispatched (especially after South Carolina votes this Saturday.)

    As someone who thinks the modern GOP is dysfunctional in more ways than one the idea that they want to decide as they did for candidates like Bush the Elder in 88′ or Bush the Younger in 2000, but can’t, makes a lot of sense.

  2. I agree that the Party Decide thesis does seem applicable to the Democrats this election cycle. But how about in 2008? Didn’t the Party initially decide for Hillary, then opt for Obama? Or is that a misreading of what happened? And why can’t the Republican Party assert some order this cycle – in what way is it dysfunctional?

  3. In regard to Trump, am I right in thinking that he has been dialing back on the outrageous comments he used at the beginning to get the media focussed on him? He still talks about the Wall but not of Mexican immigrants as rapists etc; he hasn’t said a word about McCain in months. I think he is shifting gears now that he has “momentum”, and is moving toward a more traditional stance as a statesman-like candidate for the Republican nomination. As such he is going to be even more difficult to stop.

    I also think he is successful because of the enormous frustration felt by a large part of the electorate at the obstructionism so rampant in Congress. Trump is convincing people that he is the guy who can break the log jam, even though he never attempts to explain how. Key words like “great” and “successful” and “winner”, and an overweening confidence seem to be enough for his supporters, at least at present.

  4. Bob – You are absolutely correct. When you attend Tump’s rallies, he soft-pedals a lot of the more outrageous comments that he makes that initially attract so much media coverage, and that adds to his veneer of reasonableness, at least in the eyes of his supporters. For example, in the South Carolina rally I attended, he acknowledged that he initially might have said he supported the Iraq War, but it was early and he quickly changed his views. Also, rather than directly attacking the Pope, he said it was clear that the Pope misunderstood his position on immigration. So yes, he may still utter the incendiary comment or two, but he subsequently moderates them in ways that allow supporters to believe he is reasonable. You are also right that he is not very clear how he intends to get things done, but his supporters are so frustrated with the political establishment – and here I mean frustration as much or more with Obama than with Congress – that they are willing to take a chance on Trump, even if he remains maddeningly opaque about his means for getting things done.

  5. Very lucid analysis, and I’m glad you made that point about ‘anger’. It’s something I’ve been wondering about for a while, because whenever I see footage of his rallies it does look like everyone, including Trump, is having enormous fun. (Though his online support seems less merry from what I’ve seen.)

    I don’t know what you call this tradition in the US, or if it exists, but it has the character of a pantomime, complete with call-and-response catchphrases and shifts into funny voices and grimaces from the showmaster.

    I’m not sure his supporters really take his ideas seriously as policy proposals, it’s more about his stance and tone and the persona that you have identified.

    Put it this way, if he becomes president and fails to build a Mexico-sized wall and Bill Mexico for it, do you really think he will have an outraged constituency to worry about? If he passed immigration reform, yes, but the wall and its ilk are pure theatre, and the audience knows it’s theatre and enjoys it.

  6. Adam,

    You make an interesting point regarding how far his followers may be in on the Trump “wink-wink” let’s-poke-the-establishment-in-the-eye shtick. (And your observation about Trump’s “funny voices” is spot on – he loves to mimic the people he ridiculing, and the audience loves it when he does!) It’s not clear to me that many of them have even thought very much about how he would govern or achieve his policies, never mind whether to take them seriously – they are more focused on getting him elected and being part of the Trump lalapalooza. It will be interesting to see how they react once (if) he is in office and faces the usual constraints that make it difficult for any president to get things done.

  7. Matt, Bob’s comments are dead on. Trump has moderated his content, if not his style, dramatically.

    And Bravo! for you for confessing your “dismisinterpretation” of the Trump phenomenon. As you point out in class, it’s not the deed that get’s you in trouble, it’s the cover up. (You should share that precept with Hillary with respect to the content of her Wall Street speeches).

    As for the angry part, I would be wary of reading peoples emotions into how they respond at a political event with a TV personality. I got an electric jolt of where the anger is coming from when I went to see The Big Short. Best political movie of the year. Strongly recommended.

  8. Wait – are you telling me to trust a Hollywood version of reality as a better gauge of public sentiment than an actual Trump rally? I’m not ready to go there yet!

  9. Jack – One of the great things about being a social scientist is that we don’t really care if we are “right” or “wrong” – we are just interested in what the data tells us regarding our understanding of a political outcome or process. Sometimes being “wrong” is far more revealing than being “right” because it makes us reassess our ideas regarding what we think we know about something. I think that’s what I like so much about Trump’s candidacy – it suggests something unusual is happening. But what is it? I don’t think voter anger is the explanation – there’s not a lot of evidence that anger is driving his supporters. They are not the reincarnation of Pat Buchanan’s “pitch-fork brigade”. My best guess is that his supporters think he can get things done, in contrast to the establishment “politicians”.

  10. Everyone’s saying that populism is having a moment with The Donald and Bernie doing so well in their respective nomination fights. Do you agree that populist messages like theirs are falling on unusually receptive ears, or is a certain slice of the American population (or primary-voting population, anyway) always open to this kind of talk? What kind of data would you look to for an answer? (Or is the question a bit vague, maybe?)

    The common justification for the populist wave has to do with economic issues: wage stagnation, income inequality, financial crisis, etc. The whole Piketty bit. For me this *feels* right, but I’m not familiar enough with American populist movements / eras (successful ones, in particular) to say it with much confidence. What do you think? (And do you have any go-to scholars of American populism that might illuminate the kinds of sentiment Trump and Sanders express?)

  11. Good questions! I have my RA’s looking at the relative breakdown of Republican primary voters based on income, education and ideology for the last three (2008, 2012, and 2016) elections cycle through the first four contests, so that should tell us something about whether there’s something different about this election cycle. In some ways, the Tea Party movement which elected Cruz and Rubio, among many others, in 2010 was a populist movement. There’s been several books written about that movement – the one I read was by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson. It starts out well, but turns into a bit of a polemic later on. But there are probably more balanced accounts out there. In any case, if it is the case the Trump is drawing more downscale voters as part of a populist wave, I’m hoping it shows up in the exit polling comparison. I’ll post about it as soon as I get the data.

  12. “In addition to his policy stances, then, part of his appeal is that he appears to be on his audience’s side – he doesn’t try to excuse or explain their beliefs as an illustration of intolerance or bigotry. Instead, he says they are right to hold those beliefs, and if elected president he is going to act on them.”

    I don’t quite get this comment as an explanation of Trump’s appeal. Isn’t the same thing true of all candidates at all campaign rallies? How many of them come across as *not* being on their audience’s side, or suggest that their followers’ views are intolerant or bigoted, or promise that as president they won’t act on them?

  13. Jeff,

    I’m suggesting causality runs in the other direction – these people flock to Trump because, beginning with his first appearance announcing his run for the presidency, he has articulated positions that appear to validate their views. Hence, they show up to his rallies.

  14. OK, I see that, but I guess I’m still wondering how this appeal of his is working. I mean, for the most part, his opponents hold mostly the same positions: they’ve been plenty tolerant of xenophobic nationalism, they’ve been quick to reject the idea that GOP voters are bigots, they’ve made lots of anti-Muslim noises (and have not exactly fallen over themselves to put down the “Obama is a Muslim” smear), they generally sell the idea of non-cooperation with other countries and certainly do not say they welcome the destruction of working-class communities through free trade, and they not only promise to work hard for their supporters but to start with a bunch of dramatic measures on “Day 1.”

    And then on the other side, Trump’s positions come with all kinds of caveats: he’s not against free trade in principle (just the way it’s currently done), he’s not against universal health coverage (just the way it’s currently done), he’s not even against letting formerly illegal immigrants back in (just the “good ones” only). Also, he’s not against foreign interventions as such (just the failed ones), he’s not actually for reducing the national-security state (just eliminating “waste”), he’s not proposing to reorient tax policy away from the plutocrats (just the opposite), and so on down the list.

    All that considered, how is he validating the views in question while the others aren’t — or to be more precise, what is it that voters are reading as “validation” when it comes from him but not from his opponents?

  15. Jeff – I think you’ve hit on part of the answer in your question. In fact, on the issues, Trump is charting a somewhat unique position compared to traditional Republicans. For want of a better phrase, I’ll call it economic populism. So, as you note, he’d replace Obamacare, but keep coverage for those with preexisting conditions. He supports free trade in principle, but not the specific free trade agreements that he argues are shipping jobs overseas; on immigration he’s actually more moderate than Cruz (he’ll let the “good ones” back in!; he’s for saving Social Security as it is rather than reforming it. And so on. When you go to his rallies, you can see that these are precisely the issues that appeal to the downscale voters that form a good part of his coalition. So, in my view, he doesn’t hold quite the same views as his Republican opponents – at least not in the eyes of his supporters. Of course, we have to be careful not to exaggerate his support either – he’s winning 35-40% of the Republican vote so far (and, in fact, that includes some independents). That’s impressive, but it suggests that he hasn’t completely clinched the deal with them.

  16. e.g.:
    This year’s election has not followed our script. Mr. Trump is the clear front-runner, but is loathed by the party establishment. Until the past week, almost no nationally prominent Republicans had endorsed him. Another top candidate, Senator Ted Cruz, is no more popular with Republican leaders.

  17. It certainly has not followed the script – at least not the one written by the Party Decides gang, as Noel clearly admits in his NYT editorial. The key question is why not? I think some of it has to do with Trump himself – his celebrity status, and his ability to generate free and excessive media coverage, are certainly unprecedented. But, as my post indicates, I’ve never been entirely convinced that the Party Decide thesis was correct to begin with. But I could be wrong – I suspect most of my political science colleagues would argue that I am. In any case, Noel freely acknowledges that whether the Party Decides thesis was correct in prior election cycles, it’s not explaining Trump very well. So I’m not sure I’d call his piece “weak”!

  18. I’m wondering now if it’s simply this: If there are too many candidates, the normal “winnowing” doesn’t work, or doesn’t work quickly enough to stop an insurgent / outsider candidate from taking a big lead.

    In past years, there were maybe 3 – 5 potential “establishment lane” candidates at the start, plus a scattering of insurgents, outsiders, factional or single-issue candidates, vanity candidates, and old-timers coming out of retirement. This time, I lost count, but the establishment group alone must have been at least twice the usual size. In such a situation, even the winnowing that does happen will still leave two or three candidates who can draw endorsements and win states. That’s too many if there’s one guy like Trump who can trade on prior celebrity to take an early lead in the polls.

    To avoid this, a party should look for ways to raise the “barriers to entry.” I’m not sure what those would be. Parliamentary systems with multiple small parties typically make a party put up a deposit for each candidate it runs, with losing the deposit then being the penalty if the candidate doesn’t reach a certain threshold vote. A system like that adapted to the GOP primaries would have seen something like 17 candidates lose their deposits — which means that many of them wouldn’t have chosen to run in the first place.

    Here’s something I don’t know: don’t parties have to approve who goes onto their primary ballots? Why did the GOP make it so easy?

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