Alongside the comments others have made here about what parties do — namely, resolve collective action problems and cooperation — I think it's crucial to look at the mechanisms by which these functions take place. I've hypothesized before that the GOP might have deliberately eschewed coordination early on in the campaign, because Donald Trump's antics provided some cover for other issues.
But in addition to the weak efforts to coalesce around Jeb Bush in the early endorsement primary and Marco Rubio after the Iowa caucuses, there were a couple of later attempts to coordinate: the Never Trump movement, the attempt to coalesce around Ted Cruz, and the short-lived pact between Cruz and John Kasich.
What's more, elites in the party still seem to be trying — and failing — to get on the same page about the impending Trump nomination. We can't understand the GOP in 2016 without considering how bargaining leverage has eroded within the party.
The persistence of coordination issues at this stage suggests a key facet of Republicans' predicament. Failures in the nomination stage can be attributed to slow movement, incorrect interpretation of what the Iowa results meant for Rubio, and, later on, an overemphasis on being against Trump rather than for another candidate. But the overarching theme here is that bargaining has broken down because, in many cases, no one has anything that anyone else wants.
This is the principle that unifies several of the different coordination failures. First, elites' inability to successfully signal to the voters that they were supposed to line up behind Jeb, then Rubio. Elites coordinated, and voters didn't care, as one of my party politics students observed. Second, this helps explain the inability of candidates to coordinate to stop Trump.
It wasn't obvious that Cruz, for example, could deliver enough voters to Kasich to make it worth Kasich's while to participate in the deal. (Or vice versa.) Or that either one would be in a position to nominate the other for vice president (though this didn't stop Cruz from picking a different running mate for the final six days of his campaign), or some other politically desirable office. The people with the incentive to coordinate haven't had enough of it to deliver or the ability to credibly promise political goodies.
You could probably pinpoint the start of the #NeverTrump movement as the publication of the National Review issue dedicated to declarations against the candidate. The NeverTrump folks really got going after Super Tuesday, when Trump swept the contests and Rubio had an especially disappointing night (sorry, Minnesota caucuses).
In a lot of ways, the #NeverTrump effort looked the most like a coordinated movement within the party of anything that happened in this nomination season. But it forgot something: a candidate. Rubio stayed in the race for two more weeks, and the elephant in the room (no, I will never tire of that pun) was that the polarizing and widely disliked Cruz was the most viable alternative. Furthermore, what did the NeverTrump movement have to offer potential supporters? What kinds of credible threats could it make?
The offshoot of NeverTrump that probably most resembled a functional political party was the successful effort to coalesce around Cruz in Wisconsin. Elected leaders like Gov. Scott Walker (a presidential candidate himself, in a political world that feels like a million years ago) endorsed Cruz and had harsh words for Trump. Even harsher words came from Milwaukee-area conservative radio hosts.
It's probably safe to say that many Wisconsin Republicans would not have selected Cruz as their first choice if some of the other options had remained, but what happened in Wisconsin looked a lot like what people expected to happen on a national level. Different kinds of party actors decided on a candidate, not because that candidate was perfect but because he satisfied some basic criteria, and this was enough to shut out the Trump campaign.
It's hard to know for sure, but it seems possible that the leaders who came out against Trump appear to have actual credibility and sway among voters. If this had happened on a national scale, it would've been a much less exciting year.
The final GOP effort during the primaries was the short-lived Cruz-Kasich pact, which had so little impact or substance that it might as well not have happened, except to remind us that coordination exists and used to be something we expected of parties. Neither candidate, it seemed, was actually willing to tell voters to choose the other candidate. And it's not clear that voters would have listened.
Now, as the primary season draws to a close and the field of candidates has been winnowed to one, the party faces another round of coordination issues. Will they coalesce around the chosen nominee, or will they splinter into different camps? This is truly an exceptional situation for a party to find itself in, with the two most recent Republican presidents declining to endorse and the sitting speaker of the House announcing he's "not there yet" with regard to supporting the nominee.
The meeting between Paul Ryan and Trump on May 12 didn't produce a clear agreement either. What do the two have to offer or threaten each other? It's possible that Ryan could deliver additional endorsements for Trump, and this might help him build a successful campaign organization. But between Trump's success campaigning through rallies and free media coverage, and the polarization that may lead enough Republicans to vote for him in the fall, it's not clear that Trump would want to make concessions to Ryan right now1.
While Ryan drags his feet and numerous other Republican elites maintain their opposition, a number of Republican House committee chairs have embraced the probable nominee. One of the most notable features of the 2016 contest was that the party was fragmented without obvious factions. This could create one.
The importance of rules and procedures as key features of parties is really becoming apparent this year. Parties aren't just people who share ideologies or a political brand (thus, often, a political fate). They're networks of people who owe each other something, and who can deliver something their fellow partisans need.
The ability to deliver votes — from convention delegates to precincts in the general — informed what pre–Progressive Era parties were. This kind of bargaining persisted after reforms altered nominations and voting. But it's not obvious in this cycle that party actors can credibly promise to deliver things that others in the party actually want.
This post is part of a Mischiefs of Faction series on the Republican Party. See the previous entry here.