Most weeks in American politics bring few surprises. But recent weeks have brought four.
First, Scott Walker, who looked to be the conservative establishment's pick for the GOP nomination, dropped out of the race. Then John Boehner unexpectedly resigned from Congress because his job — which he recently compared to being a garbageman surrounded by "bad garbage" — had become impossible. Then an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was released showing Bernie Sanders merely 7 points behind Hillary Clinton; that's down from the 60-point deficit between the two candidates in June. The same poll showed that Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina — the GOP's true outsider candidates — have reached a combined 52 percent in the polls, while Jeb Bush, the GOP's top insider candidate, has plummeted from 23 percent to 7 percent.
Let's state the obvious: No pundit anywhere predicted any two of these things back in June. Hell, I'm not aware of a pundit who predicted even one of them. And so you should be skeptical of anyone — myself included — who confidently asserts they know what's going on right now. The models we typically use to understand American politics are breaking down. New theories are needed, but they need to be offered with humility.
So here's a hypothesis — raw, incomplete, and potentially incorrect — for why politics has been so surprising this year: The tools that party insiders use to decide both electoral and legislative outcomes are being weakened by new technologies and changing media norms. And so models of American politics that assume the effectiveness of those tools — models that weight elite opinion heavily, and give outsiders and insurgents little chance — have been thrown off.
How political parties decided what you knew — and what you didn't
The kind of campaigning that happens on television and before crowds is a small fraction of what's necessary to win a nomination, or lead a congressional delegation. The inside game — courting donors, winning endorsements, influencing the primary calendar, securing key committee assignments, luring top staffers, working with interest groups —makes up the bulk of politics.
Mastery of the inside game is hard to assess and so is frequently undervalued, but it's also determinative — it's why wooden campaigners like Mitt Romney and Al Gore win primaries, and why no current leader of either party's congressional wing can deliver an exciting speech. The media often scratches its head over how such weak politicians prove so successful at politics, but the answer is they're not weak politicians — they're excellent politicians, but the part of politics they excel at is largely hidden.
This was one of the core insights behind the Party Decides theory of presidential primaries, which argued, persuasively, that political parties quietly dominated presidential primaries, and so the best way to predict the eventual winner is to watch early endorsements. But as Andrew Prokop wrote in his critique of the idea, after correctly predicting nine out of 11 contested presidential primaries between 1976 and 2000, the only primary the theory has correctly predicted since 2000 was Mitt Romney's 2012 win.
Perhaps it's just been a bad few years for the theory. Or perhaps parties are systematically losing their ability to decide.
Parties have a range tools they can use to influence both electoral and legislative outcomes, but the most important one — in part because it underlies so many of the others — is elite opinion. If a critical mass of Republican Party elites think Jeb Bush is the best candidate, then the best staffers will want to work for him, the biggest donors will want to give him money, and voters will get signal after signal from trusted Republican sources that Bush deserves their vote.
Distilled to their essence, money, staff, and elite signaling all work to influence voters the same way: They shape the amount and kind of information voters possess. This happens both directly — money buys television airtime — and indirectly.
For instance, politically engaged voters get much of their information through various forms of political news; in order to generate all that political news, political reporters talk to party actors and watch fundraising numbers and note who's hiring the top staffers; and so the opinions of those party actors ends up influencing which candidates get covered and how positively they're portrayed, and that influences what voters end up knowing when they walk into the ballot booth.
Why the parties are losing their power to decide
The importance of this process — and it remains important — is diminishing. Voters have more information than ever before, and they are able to shape and choose the information they get in unprecedented ways.
Bernie Sanders, for instance, received much more coverage than he would have in past elections because news organizations — Vox included — noticed that stories about Sanders would explode on social media. That was a sign that there was more momentum behind his candidacy than most in Washington recognized; a sign that wouldn't have existed, and so couldn't have been heeded, a decade ago.
The media, meanwhile, is much more competitive than it's been in previous decades. Fox News barely existed before the 2000 election. BuzzFeed News didn't exist until the 2008 election. The profusion of outlets trying different coverage strategies, the tremendous amount of feedback about what audiences actually like, and the all-against-all war for attention has led to more coverage of candidates who make for good stories and comparatively less coverage for candidates who are powered by a good reputation among party elites; this is why Donald Trump is by far the most-covered candidate of either party this cycle, while Rick Perry was beloved by insiders but mostly ignored on the trail.
In cases where the media doesn't cooperate, candidates have more options to speak directly to their supporters in order to get the media interested. Campaign-to-voter contact used to be cumbersome and expensive, but in the age of email, Facebook, and YouTube, it's nearly costless to communicate with supporters who want more information than the media is willing or able to provide. This was part of what powered Ron Paul's insurgent campaign in 2008 and 2012.
Of course, nearly costless isn't the same as actually costless. Fundraising still matters, but political parties have less control over money than ever before; the rise of unlimited-contribution Super PACs means that a candidate only needs one or two rich supporters to fund a campaign. Newt Gingrich's surprisingly strong and sustained challenge to Mitt Romney was largely funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who pumped about $20 million into Gingrich's Super PAC. Trump, of course, is self-funding.
All this has created a climate that's friendlier than it's ever been to politicians who can command a camera or dominate a televised debate or send their speeches viral, and that's more hostile than usual to candidates or policymakers who know how to work their caucus but can't work a crowd.
This was, in the end, part of why Boehner's life had become so miserable. In a telling interview with Politico, he contrasted the understanding reception he received from sophisticated donors with the criticisms of grassroots conservatives who thought him part of a corrupt establishment:
"Almost all of the donors understand that, you know, without a Republican in the White House, or 60 votes in the Senate, there are limits to what you could accomplish," he said. "They understand all the accomplishments I’ve had, and then some, have been accomplished with a Democrat in the White House. Donors around the country understand it."
And it's even more acute on the campaign trail. Scott Walker, for instance, thrilled major conservative activist groups and donors (the Koch brothers, in particular, were known to be enamored of the Wisconsin governor), but his poor debate performances and dull affect on the stump crushed his candidacy.
By contrast, Carly Fiorina has zero trust from the Republican establishment — her political experience basically begins and ends with a California Senate campaign where she was trounced by Barbara Boxer — but she's a devastating debater, and that's been enough to send her rocketing ahead of nearly every single experienced Republican politician in the polls.
None of this should be taken to mean that politics has become purely about outsider skills. Indeed, if I had to bet, I'd still say Hillary Clinton takes the Democratic nomination and Marco Rubio wins the Republican nomination. But the relative importance of insider and outsider politicking is changing, and that's part of why talented outsider candidates have had such a good year while masters of the inside game have had such a bad year.
But who knows? I've been wrong before.