The events of the Republican presidential race in 2016 are obviously putting considerable strain on the "party decides" idea that party elites largely determine nominations. But it's still early, and the race is far from over. What can we say about the evidence we have so far?
Probably one of the biggest problems for this theory so far is that Jeb Bush, who was the leader in party elite endorsements prior to the Iowa caucuses, dropped out of the race over the weekend. That's significant. It suggests that party leaders can't get their way over the substantial objections of voters. Bush performed poorly, and his performance cost him the nomination.
But that's not necessarily the whole story there. Yes, Bush was the endorsement leader prior to Iowa, but it's not like the party was uniformly behind him. Indeed, the party largely declined to even make a decision pre-Iowa; very few traditional endorsers weighed in last year. Again, this is not great support for the theory, nor is it evidence of a particularly strong party leadership. It is, however, consistent with more recent cycles, in which the party has waited for signals from the Iowa and New Hampshire electorates before deciding on a champion.
What is also of interest is the behavior of party elites in response to the information provided by primary voters and caucus-goers. Of the three contests so far, Donald Trump has won two of them and Ted Cruz has won one. Cruz has generated very few elite endorsements despite his strong showing; Trump has generated none. Instead, party insider support has been flooding to Marco Rubio, who has yet to win a contest.
This is an important development and provides some insight into the thought processes and preferences of party elites. If party voters were leading the process, party elites would be jumping on the bandwagon for either Cruz or Trump. That hasn't happened, at least not yet.
Why not? Because neither Trump nor Cruz is anything like the sort of candidate a party traditionally nominates for president. Both are factional candidates and are heavily despised by large segments of the party. You'd have to go back to Barry Goldwater to find a Republican nominee so divisive. Rubio, however, is a more traditional choice. Very few people in the party truly love him, but nearly all can tolerate him. He's good enough on most issues of importance to party insiders, and, unlike the other two leading candidates, few think he'd be a disaster.
Obviously, just having the backing of party insiders isn't enough if it doesn't translate into votes. But through the process of candidate winnowing, we can see where those votes come from. Judging from polls, much of Jeb Bush's support is likely to end up with Rubio. The same will happen to John Kasich's support once Kasich drops out.
Now, should either Cruz or Trump drop out in the near future, it's likely a fair amount of his support would go to the other. That would be leave a formidable candidacy, one that Rubio would have a hard time defeating in upcoming contests. But that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon. Instead, we see the emergence of an insider-backed candidate fighting a two-front war against two factional candidates. Should this pattern continue for a while, Rubio's path to primary victories and ultimately the nomination begins to seem clear. And party insiders would have the sort of nominee they want.
This clearly isn't the sort of strong party model we saw when the Republicans converged early on George W. Bush in 2000, pushing out most other credible challengers, or when Democrats did the same for Al Gore that year. It's not even the same sort of thing we're seeing this year with Democrats, who very early on settled on Hillary Clinton, even if she's having to work to push back Bernie Sanders's challenge. GOP elites moved very late in this cycle, allowing a Trump candidacy to continue unchecked for too long, which poses a significant threat to the party.
We do see, however, evidence of party coordination in favor of a traditional sort of candidate, and a path for that candidate to get the nomination. The party is making a decision, and it may well get its way.