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Savvy observers think the GOP race is down to Bush and Rubio. Here's why I don't agree.

Justin Sullivan / Getty

Over the past week, responses from political scientists to my recent feature critiquing The Party Decides have poured in — see Seth Masket at the Pacific Standard, and Hans Noel and Jonathan Ladd at Mischiefs of Faction here on Vox. And one common point made by them is quite true — it's still early, the theory is about who will actually win, and polling conducted around this time has frequently failed to predict who will win. Clearly, we can't settle that question now.

Yet my skepticism isn't just about what's unfolding this year. It's about what's happened over the past 12 years of presidential primaries, and how I think that should inform our view of the parties' strength.

For instance, Ladd summarizes the theory as stating that "support from party insiders and organized party factions" determines who wins the nomination. But — according to the authors' own metric, of public endorsements from party insiders before Iowa — that isn't what happened for Democrats in 2004. Or for Democrats in 2008. Or for Republicans in 2008.

Obviously, none of these races ended with a nominee as alien to the party establishment as Donald Trump (or Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, or even Bernie Sanders).

All the same, the lack of successful elite coordination in three of the past four presidential primaries makes me skeptical whether it's true that, as Ladd suggests, "the Republican nominee is highly likely to be Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, the only two remaining candidates who are broadly acceptable to party insiders."

John Kerry came out of nowhere to win Iowa in 2004

The Party Decides Table 6.1, depicting weighted endorsements before the Iowa caucuses (partial).

The Democratic establishment spent much of 2003 terrified by the rise of Howard Dean, an insurgent candidate who excited liberals with his strongly worded opposition to the Iraq War. Dean raised boatloads of cash online, but many party insiders feared he was too liberal to beat President Bush.

Yet those elites ended up doing very little about it — because they didn't know whom else to get behind. In the end, few party insiders endorsed, though Dean and Dick Gephardt led in those that were issued.

Surprisingly, though, John Kerry — whose campaign had long been written off — surged late in Iowa, and won the caucuses. He then won in New Hampshire the following week, and dominated the February contests too.

The endorsement data makes it clear that it wasn't party insiders who first smiled on Kerry. Indeed, some major Democrats like the party's most recent nominee, Al Gore, ended up endorsing Dean instead. It was the voters of Iowa who elevated Kerry to the front of the pack. (One commonly offered explanation for why is that Dean and Gephardt, previously the two leaders, had savaged each other with negative ads.)

Once Kerry had been elevated, party insiders had the non-Dean alternative they privately yearned for, and fell in line behind him. But their utter inability to coordinate behind someone beforehand is noteworthy. Indeed, the authors of The Party Decides themselves wrote in the book that this race showed "the fragility of insider control of nominations."

Barack Obama definitely did not win because of party elites in 2008

Nowadays, we tend to remember Hillary Clinton being the dominant-looking frontrunner throughout 2007, and Barack Obama as her obvious challenger. According to the authors' data, at least, the party didn't agree. This chart shows some pre-Iowa endorsement strength for John Edwards, who was running on an economically liberal message and who, unlike Clinton, had apologized for his Iraq War vote.

According to Noel, the Edwards backers were mainly lower-level party members — if you filter them out and look only at endorsees who were members of Congress or above, then Clinton wins 51 percent, Edwards 21 percent, and Obama 19 percent.

In either case, though, Obama was far behind in public endorsements. It was later reported that insiders like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer had privately encouraged him to run, which shows he was considered a potentially good and strong nominee by some party elites. And after Obama won the Iowa caucuses, he got some elite endorsements from people like Ted Kennedy.

But it's very clear that organized party interests had no intention of delivering the nomination to Barack Obama — he had to fight for it. First, he won the Iowa caucuses on the strength of factors like his message, personal charisma, organizing, fundraising, and initial opposition to the Iraq War. Then he fought it out with Clinton in months of grinding trench warfare in contests across the country, aided again by his organization in caucus states and his overwhelming strength among black voters.

The GOP was divided among three candidates in 2008

In 2008, eventual nominee John McCain did walk away with a bare plurality of pre-Iowa endorsements, but the authors view this result as essentially a tie with Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, signifying a split Republican Party. "The party was not united around anyone in 2008," Noel told me in a recent email.

Furthermore, some of McCain's traits make him particularly ill-fitting for the theory — co-author David Karol told me last year that it's "the worst case for us," since he was not seen as "a reliable party man." McCain, who in the early 2000s had deemed evangelical conservative leaders "agents of intolerance" and opposed President Bush's tax cuts, was deeply distrusted by some key elements of the GOP coalition.

Now, McCain did work hard to mend these fences in the years before his run — making himself into an acceptable nominee who no longer openly defied these interests. Still, the party didn't fall in line behind him, and few tears were shed when his campaign seemed to bottom out in the summer of 2007.

But as Noel said, insiders couldn't unite around anyone else, either. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney were both flawed in their own ways, and Fred Thompson — seemingly an orthodox, party-loyal conservative — utterly failed to impress on the campaign trail after his late entry into the race. When Mike Huckabee and McCain ended up winning the early contests, elites preferred McCain of the two, and he indeed ended up winning. Yet Huckabee may also have been doomed by simple demographic math, since his appeal to Republican voters outside evangelical areas was quite limited.

Who's really in charge — the parties or the voters?

The best case for party influence in these contests is about whom the parties didn't nominate, not whom they did. Howard Dean in 2004 and Mike Huckabee in 2008 are both what the authors of The Party Decides would call "factional candidates." They each proved unable to broaden their appeal beyond a limited wing of the party — antiwar activists for Dean, and Southern evangelicals for Huckabee. The thinking is that someone was always bound to emerge and unite the party against a candidate like this — it just happened after the first few states voted, rather than before them.

Still, both the data and the way the process unfolded suggest to me that the preferences of insiders weren't determinative. The rises of Kerry, McCain, and Obama in their respective contests were all spurred by these candidates' victories in early states — not a preceding groundswell of endorsements from party elites.

So when Ladd writes that the nominee will "highly likely" be Bush or Rubio because they're the "only two remaining candidates who are broadly acceptable to party insiders" — and suggests that those insiders will at some point "coordinate their support for that candidate so that establishment resources aren't divided" — I'm not so sure. (For one, I wonder what will happen if neither places well in an early state.)

When I look at the 2004 to 2008 contests, I see parties that are uncertain, confused, and really rather bad at coordinating. I see parties that let voters in early states elevate a few contenders to the top tier because they don't know who to pick themselves. I see, overall, parties scrambling in response to and trying to make the best of a complex process that they don't truly control. And in the GOP race this year so far, the pattern of endorsements — really, lack of endorsements — looks much more like those complicated recent contests than races where insiders did seem to decide (like 2000 for both Democrats and Republicans, and 2012 for Republicans).

So while I think it's quite possible that Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush could win, I also think that the process in recent years has looked quite messy — and could, conceivably, result in a very messy outcome for the party.