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.

At The Trump South Carolina Primary Rally: Notes From The Campaign Trail

If you want to know why Donald Trump won in South Carolina tonight, you need only have attended his rally yesterday at the Myrtle Beach Civic Center. Here’s part two describing my four-day visit to South Carolina, focusing on the Trump rally.

After deciding not to wait for The Donald to vacate my hotel, we headed to his nearby rally. When we arrived, the line snaked outside the Civic Center for about ¼ mile. We took our place at the end and waited. Fortunately, in contrast to his New Hampshire rally, this time they had multiple security screening entrances so the line moved quickly. As we moved forward, there were the usual vendors at a Trump rally hawking pins, buttons, shirt, caps – anything with the Trump name and face on it.

Of course, there was also the occasional discordant voice:

Inside, Elton John’s Rocket Man blared so loud the floor shook.  There was an air of expectation as the large crowd waited for The Donald to arrive. The floor of the Civic Center was packed – I estimated maybe 5,000 people pressing forward to the stage, trying to get a closer glimpse of the candidate. As always, the media was fenced off in the back – I recognized CNN’s Dana Bash and NBC’s Katy Tur, among other talking heads that were in the media pen.

As is typical for a Trump crowd, there was a healthy cross-section of demographic groups, but there was a definite segment of what appeared to be the working class voter. For example, a group of bikers gathered next to me, with one of them wearing a leather jacket and clutching a Trump poster.


Finally, to a roar from the crowd, The Donald appeared on stage and immediately launched into his speech. It touched on the familiar themes, and was delivered in the same stream-of-consciousness, lack-of-detail level of specificity that characterized his previous speeches I’ve seen. But he sprinkled in references to recent events, such as his recent dustup with the Pope that showed he was paying attention to the campaign narrative and was trying to influence it. He also played to his specific audience, in this case mentioning a video of workers for the Carrier Corporation, which has corporate headquarters in South Carolina, who found out their manufacturing plant was moving to Mexico. “I believe in free trade, but it has to be smart trade,” Trump thundered. He would return to this theme again and again throughout his speech by critiquing the politicians and “political hacks” that currently run American’s trade policy, but also laying out his strategy for preventing this from happening in the future.

Trump briefly shrugged off the recent dustup about whether he had first supported the Iraq War “It was very early in the war – I might have said something” and also briefly noted that the Pope had apparently been misinformed about what Trump had said about immigration – and then he moved on. No one in the audience appeared nearly as concerned about these issues as the media seemed to suggest they might be.

As always, Trump riffed on every possible topic, often veering from one topic to the next with no apparent logic but without missing a beat. He promised to rescind Obamacare “which has destroyed many businesses” and then moved on to attack Ted Cruz as a liar – “he doctored a photo of Marco Rubio!” as well as playing dirty campaign tricks in Iowa against Ben Carson. He noted that his Republican rivals are all beholden to special interests “Cruz is controlled by the oil lobby…he’s Robin Hood” – while he, Trump, is self-funding his campaign (“I don’t believe I get enough credit for that.”). He repeated, to great applause, that every time Mexican officials say they won’t pay for a “great wall” on the southern border, it is only going to get 10 feet higher. “China built a Great Wall – and they didn’t have Caterpillars made in America”.

Again and again he referred to his theme that the reason the U.S. is hemorrhaging jobs is not because the Chinese are evil – it’s because the U.S. is led by incompetent people. Here he took a swipe at Caroline Kennedy’s appointment as U.S. ambassador to Japan. (“She said she had nothing to do and they offered her a job.  She said ‘Really’?”) He noted that Americans needed leaders who were both smart and tough – and here he referenced General George Patton, something I hadn’t heard before in his speeches. At this point the usual protestors stood up, sending the crowd into a frenzied “We Want Trump” chant as The Donald roared, “Throw them out! Don’t hurt them, but throw them out!”

After the protesters were tossed out,  Donald said what he always says, “I love these protests because they force the media to turn their cameras and show how big my crowds are.”  He then returned to his stump speech, reiterating his stance for a temporary ban on Syrian refugees. He noted that he wasn’t going to disavow Putin for calling him “a genius – why would I? Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Russia?”  The crowd applauded. He also mocked Jeb Bush for calling Trump “a highly gifted politician”. “I would never praise one of my opponents!”

And, as always, there were the polls. Donald mocked the one poll that showed him losing to Cruz. Otherwise he noted he was winning them all, and not by a little. He pointed out that he would do well in the general election because he is so popular in large states like New York, New Jersey and Michigan. And he said he would do well among African-Americans and noted how high the African-American unemployment rate was under Obama. As he said this, an African-American woman next to me screamed out “Amen, Amen.” He also promised to reform the Veterans Administration and to make the U.S. military the most powerful in the world. “Hopefully we won’t have to use it.”

Trump ended by asking the people to come out and vote for him. “We are going to start winning, winning, winning” he intoned, to rising applause.  As we left the arena, people seemed in a festive mood, as if they had attended a great rock concert or sporting event. “You’ll remember this great meeting” Trump told them near the end of the speech.

And he may very well be right.

I’ll have a third post up describing the rest of my South Carolina trip soon.

Ted Cruz, The Donald, and I: The State of the Race In S.C., Part One

As the nominating contests moved south (and west) from New Hampshire, your intrepid blogger followed the candidates. Here’s Part I of what I saw during my four-day whirlwind campaign tour of the Palmetto state.

We flew into Charlotte early Wednesday, and after the obligatory (for a presidency scholar) stops at the birthplaces of James Polk and (possibly – it is in dispute) Andrew Jackson, I headed to Myrtle Beach where I hoped to pull off the ultimate: hitting four candidate stops in one day. Along the way, however, I managed to take a wrong turn and, in the process of turning around, drove into a ditch. Just as I thought my South Carolina trip was destined to last no longer than Scott Walker’s campaign, three pick up trucks pulled up, and in 15 minutes three locals and I had lifted the rental car out of the ditch with nary a scratch. That was my introduction to South Carolinian hospitality, but not my last experience with it – people have been incredibly thoughtful and kind throughout the trip, particularly when I accosted them at polling places.

On Thursday we took the lay of the land, talking to locals about the campaign. It soon became apparent that most of the locals here were more interested in the Republican race, and that there were a considerable number of undecided voters. However, more than one person told me they were deciding between Trump and Sanders. When I asked why, they all said some version of it is time to clean up Washington, get new people in, etc. The other overriding sentiment, however, was that most people could not wait for the campaign to end. One older gentleman told me he had received 75 phone calls in the last week from political campaigns, and had taken to simply hanging up on them. Others complained about the nasty tones of the campaign ads. One man told me, “They don’t give you any reason to vote for them. They just attack each other.” Meanwhile, you couldn’t turn on the television without seeing wall-to-wall campaign ads. Among the more indelible images was those of Marco Rubio and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who seemed joined at the hip at every appearance.

On Friday we awoke early to attend a Ted Cruz rally, which fortunately featured Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson to warm up the audience. I couldn’t possibly do justice to Robertson’s speech, except to say it featured a lot of talk about sinners, the Founding Fathers, the Ten Commandments, STD’s (I kid you not) and courthouses. Robertson bragged that he didn’t own a cellphone or a computer. When asked how he operates, he noted, “I’m filthy rich!”

After Phil left, Cruz was introduced by his wife Heidi, who spent a few minutes gushing about why she fell in love with Ted, and he took the stage to huge applause from a packed house (I estimated 500 people.) In contrast to his rallies in New Hampshire, in which the audience seemed more subdued, it was clear these were Cruz’ people and he fed off their energy. The closest experience I have had was attending a Sanders’ rally, which also featured the true believers who came to hear the anointed one preach the gospel. After reciprocating Heidi’s love chat, Cruz used Antonin Scalia’s death to point to the importance of electing a true conservative to the Presidency. Much of what he said reprised his standard stump speech from NH, such as his promise to bring French fries back to school lunches, but he added a new wrinkle especially for South Carolina by referencing William Barret Travis, a South Carolinian who commanded the Texas army at the battle of the Alamo. Barret, and the Alamo, served as a means of connecting Cruz’ home state of Texas with South Carolina – two states, Cruz explained, that had a lot in common. He then recounted Travis’ famous “line in the sand” speech, and he said South Carolinian voters are at a similar crossroads.


Cruz also took a shot at his Republican rivals for advocating for women to fight in the military – “Can you believe that?” he asked incredulously – and at Trump for saying he would remain “neutral” in the fight between Palestine and Israel. Cruz promised to restore the might of the U.S. military, repeal every word of Obamacare, institute tax reform that would lead to the abolition of the IRS, and utterly destroy ISIS, the face of radical Islamic terrorism. And, in a phrase meant to remind voters of Trump, Cruz promised that if he’s elected “We’ll be winning so much that we’ll be tired of winning!” He concluded with another shot at Trump, saying, “It’s easy to say ‘I’ll make America great again.’ But that requires you to understand what made American great in the first place!” Cruz urged the audience to get out and vote, and to tell two family members or friends to do so as well.

When Cruz ended, we dashed out of the room, hoping to make a quick stop at our hotel before heading over to the Donald Trump rally. But as we pulled up to the hotel doors, security met us and asked us to wait – because The Donald was coming out to go to his rally! Apparently he had slipped into our hotel the previous night after doing the CNN Townhall and, while I was drinking scotch, the Secret Service was trying to decide if I might be a radical Islamic terrorist. After waiting 35 minutes, we decided to go right to the Trump rally. As you might expect, it was a spectacle all by itself. Details to come.

Remembering The Guardian of the Presidency On President’s Day

On President’s Day, I post my traditional column commemorating the late, great presidency scholar Richard E. Neustadt.  During almost six decades of public service and in academia, until his death in 2003 at the age of 84, Neustadt advised presidents of both parties and their aides, and distilled these experiences in the form of several influential books on presidential leadership and decisionmaking.  Perhaps his biggest influence, however, came from the scores of students (including Al Gore) he mentored at Columbia and Harvard, many of whom went on to careers in public service.  Others (like me!) opted for academia where they schooled subsequent generations of students in Neustadt’s teachings, (and sometimes wrote blogs on the side.)

Interestingly, Neustadt came to academia through a circuitous route that, unfortunately, is rarely used today. After a brief stint in FDR’s Office of Price Administration, followed by a tour in the military, he returned to government as a mid-level career bureaucrat in President Harry Truman’s Bureau of the Budget (BoB) in 1946, gradually working his way up the ranks until he was brought into Truman’s White House in 1950 as a junior-level political aide.  While working in the BoB, Neustadt took time to complete his doctoral dissertation at Harvard (working from Washington), which analyzed the development of the president’s legislative program.  When Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952, Neustadt faced a career crossroads. With the doctorate in hand, he decided to try his hand at academia.

When he began working his way through the presidency literature to prepare to teach, however, he was struck by just how little these scholarly works had in common with his own experiences under Truman.  They described the presidency in terms of its formal powers, as laid out in the Constitution and subsequent statute, or as an amalgamation of different roles – chief diplomat, chief legislator, etc.  To Neustadt, these formal powers and related roles – while not inconsequential – told only part of the story.  To fully understand what made presidents more or less effective, one had to dig deeper to uncover the sources of the president’s power. With this motivation, he sat down to write Presidential Power, which was first published in 1960 and went on to become the best selling scholarly study of the presidency ever written. Now in its 4th edition, it continues to be assigned in college classrooms around the world (the Portuguese language edition came out three years ago). Neustadt’s argument in Presidential Power is distinctive and I certainly can’t do justice to it here.  But his essential point is that because presidents share power with other actors in the American political system, they can rarely get things done through command or unilateral action. Instead, they need to persuade others that what the President wants done is what they should want done as well, but for their own political and personal interests.  At the most fundamental level that means presidents must bargain. The most effective presidents, then, are those who understand the sources of their bargaining power, and take steps to nurture those sources.

At its core, Presidential Power is a handbook for presidents (and their advisers). It teaches them how to gain, nurture and exercise power. Beyond the subject matter, however, what makes Neustadt’s analysis so fascinating are the illustrations he brings to bear, many drawn from his own personal experiences as an adviser to presidents. Interestingly, the book might have languished on bookstore shelves if not for a fortuitous event: after his election to the presidency in 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked Neustadt to write transition memos to help prepare him for office. More importantly for the sale of Neustadt’s book, however, the president-elect was photographed disembarking from a plane with a copy of Presidential Power clearly visible in his jacket pocket.  Believe me, nothing boosts the sale of a book on the presidency more than a picture of the President reading that book!  (Which reminds me: if you need lessons about leading during an economic depression, President Obama, I’d recommend this book. Don’t forget to get photographed while reading it!)

But it takes more than a president’s endorsement to turn a book into a classic, one that continues to get assigned in presidency courses today, more than two decades after the last edition was issued.  What explains Presidential Power’s staying power? As I have argued elsewhere, Neustadt’s classic work endures because it analyzes the presidency institutionally; presidential power, according to Neustadt, is primarily a function of the Constitutionally-based system of separated institutions sharing power.  That Constitutional grounding makes Neustadt’s analysis of continuing relevance.   And while many subsequent scholars have sought to replace Neustadt’s analysis with one of their own, for the most part they end up making his same points (although they often don’t acknowledge as much) but not nearly as effectively.

After publishing his classic work, Neustadt was subsequently asked to join Kennedy’s White House staff but – with two growing children whom had already endured his absences in his previous White House stint – he opted instead to stay in academia.  He went on to help establish Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote several more award-winning books, and continued to advise formally or informally every president through Clinton. (Many of his presidential memos were later published in this book.) After the death of Bert, his first wife, he married Shirley Williams, one of the founders of Britain’s Social Democrats Party (and now a Baroness in the House of Lords), which provided still another perspective on executive politics.  He also continued churning out graduate students (I was the last doctoral student whose dissertation committee Neustadt chaired at Harvard.). When I went back to Harvard in 1993 as an assistant professor, my education continued; I lured Neustadt out of semi-retirement to co-teach a graduate seminar on the presidency – an experience that deepened my understanding of the office and taught me to appreciate good scotch.  It was the last course Neustadt taught in Harvard’s Government Department, but he remained active in public life even after retiring from teaching.  Shortly before his death he traveled to Brazil to advise that country’s newly-elected president Lula da Silva.

And so sometime today take time to hoist a glass of your favorite beverage in honor of Richard E. Neustadt, our own Guardian of the Presidency. If you are interested in learning more about him, there’s a wonderful (really!)  book available on Amazon.com edited by Neustadt’s daughter and that blogger guy from Middlebury College (see here). It contains contributions from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Gore, Ernie May, Graham Allison, Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harrison Wellford, Harvey Fineberg, Jonathan Alter, Chuck Jones, Eric Redman, Beth Neustadt and yours truly.

Here’s to you,  Dick!

Picture1