The key to grasping the place of Ames in the Republican nomination process is that it occurs right in the middle of the invisible primary—that portion of the process that takes place before voters are involved. During this period, candidates aren’t seeking the support of rank-and-file Republicans; they are appealing to party insiders of various kinds: party-aligned interest groups and media; governing and campaign professionals; formal party officials; and activists. From the point of view of those actors, the invisible primary is a time to sort out conflicts and coordinate action.
Republicans held their first official debate last night, which I missed because I was watching the hockey game. Just because I didn’t feel like watching, however, shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning I don’t think the debate was important. In fact, I think it may be one of the most consequential debates of the year.
My professor, Hans Noel, is coauthor of a great book, The Party Decides, which contends that post McGovern-Fraser reforms, party elites still essentially control the nominating process. According to the book’s model, modern parties should be viewed as a coalition of intense policy demanders with their own pet interests. The role of the party leaders is to manage and placate each group so they stay in the coalition. This is somewhat similar to Seth Masket’s model, which states that Informal Party Organizations, or IPOs, determine the winners of primary elections, and thus, control party agendas.
I think this model of party structure is far more convincing than Aldrich’s model, laid out in Why Parties? (although otherwise a great book!) and certainly better than the very outdated bimodal model created by Anthony Downs so many years ago. What’s especially great about the model, though, is we can actually test it during the current primary campaign! According to Hans and his coauthors, we are in the middle of the invisible primary, where the party, defined here as a wide assortment of elites, are making their decisions. These elites will then signal primary and caucus voters on who to support. That’s why these early debates are so important. The Republican Party is made up of a many interested groups; all of whom are looking at how to best maximize their influence in the coalition. Each elite then is evaluating candidates based on policy compatibly and electablity. That’s why this early period is so important. While it’s difficult to quantify an inherently closed-door phenomenon, I think we should still be looking for elite signals in the next few months. The average primary voter may not necessarily be watching these debates, but the party elites certainly are. What they think may be all that matters.