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One party has decided. The other hasn't.

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The events of the 2016 presidential election cycle have provided a great deal of fodder for attacking some leading political science texts on party nominations, especially The Party Decides. But the "theory didn't predict this, ergo failure" conclusions aren't exactly right. It's worth remembering that there are actually two nomination contests going on right now, and that each is offering us different lessons and different tests.

First of all, what does The Party Decides say? Nate Silver recently provided a very thoughtful discussion of the book, which I commend to your attention. A pretty simple (and admittedly incomplete) summary of the book might be the following: When the party decides which candidate it wants, it's pretty good at making sure that candidate gets the nomination, even if it's not the candidate the public seems to want at the outset. How is this bearing out across the two parties?

It would be one thing if the Republican Party had settled on Jeb Bush (or anyone else) and was proving unable to get him across the finish line. But that's not what happened. Instead, the party simply hasn't decided. There will likely be all sorts of internal party reform discussions after this year, questioning the party's system of selecting presidential nominees. But the fact remains that the party has a pretty good system for selecting nominees, and it declined to use it this year. As Julia Azari suggests, the party just decided not to decide.

To give just one example, we're now just a few days from the Iowa caucuses, and of the 29 Republican governors who are not running for president only four have issued endorsements. Two are backing Chris Christie, one is backing Mike Huckabee, and one is for John Kasich. By contrast, prior to the Iowa caucuses in 2000, 27 of 32 sitting Republican governors had come out in favor of George W. Bush.

It's not even that today's party insiders can't agree on a candidate; they're not really saying anything at all. Some party elites have been very clear about whom they don't want to be the nominee, but that's not the same as converging on a candidate, particularly when the field is so crowded.

There may be very good reasons for this. Party insiders might have legitimately believed that no matter how much they did not want Donald Trump to be their nominee, they couldn't stop him, even by converging all their efforts on Bush or Marco Rubio or someone else. Not only would Trump still have dominated the contest, but the party would have clearly indicated its opposition to the choice of a substantial and very energetic (and angry) segment of its voters. That's potentially dangerous for a party's leadership.

It's also possible that despite the impressive range of governors and senators running on the Republican side, the candidate pool has deep flaws. Rubio is inexperienced and has an inconsistent past on religion. Bush has proven highly ineffective on the stump. Christie has a massive scandal that Democrats will feast on. Everybody hates Ted Cruz. And so on.

Regardless of the reason, the party is going into the Iowa caucuses without having indicated a favorite. And this, as The Party Decides notes, is a dangerous situation. You can end up with a nominee who is unelectable, bad for party priorities, or otherwise undesirable if you just leave things up to the voters. For any number of reasons, the GOP seems willing to take that chance this year.

A far better test of the book, however, would be the Democratic contest this year. Unlike the Republicans, Democratic insiders have demonstrated a clear preference. Twelve governors are backing Hillary Clinton; zero are backing Bernie Sanders. Clinton has the endorsements of 38 Democratic senators; Sanders has zero. In every way it knows how, the Democratic establishment has signaled that Clinton is its choice.

That said, the Democratic voters and caucus-goers of New Hampshire and Iowa have decided to make this contest interesting. Sanders may well win in New Hampshire, and Iowa's looking like a toss-up. If Sanders really can build momentum off early primary and caucus victories and ride that to a nomination, as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter did in the 1970s, then the world described in The Party Decides no longer exists. This really would be a candidate-centered system. If, on the other hand, party insiders' choice still prevails despite what early-state voters seem to prefer, then that would suggest that the party truly does decide.

This is shaping up to be a very weird presidential nomination cycle. But the parties are not remotely in the same place, and before we throw out the best explanation we have about the way this system works, it is worth seriously reflecting on the evidence that the parties are currently providing us.

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