Now, as Donald Trump closes in on the Republican nomination, pundits who spent months arguing that he would ultimately fail are beginning to reckon with what they got wrong about the 2016 primaries. Many say they bought into The Party Decides, only to discover that the theory got the GOP side of this cycle wrong.
Take Ross Douthat of the New York Times, grappling with his own failure to anticipate Trump’s success. “The best place to start isn’t with the Republican Party’s leaders—the opportunists, the cowards, the sleepwalkers—but with its voters, and the once-reasonable assumptions about voter psychology that Trump seems to have disproved,” Douthat writes. “One such assumption, that voters follow the signals sent by party elites and officeholders, is the basis of the famous ‘party decides’ thesis in political science, which was invoked early and often to explain why Trump couldn’t possibly end up as the Republican nominee. While his progress has undercut that thesis, it hasn’t been fully disproved, since the ‘party decides’ conceit doesn’t tell us about what happens when the party simply can’t decide.”
In this telling, the “invisible primary” that precedes each election cycle, the one that gave us George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton, did not determine the 2016 Republican nominee because GOP influencers in the “invisible primary” were too split among Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and others. They couldn’t agree on a fait accompli to present to voters, which helps to square The Party Decides with Trump as presumptive nominee.
While true, that story is incomplete and lets “the party” off too easily.
Conventional wisdom currently holds that The Party Decides is inconsistent with Election 2016 insofar as Trump voters have ignored or rejected clear signals and cues from “the party” that the vulgar billionaire is a uniquely unacceptable nominee. To be sure, many prominent GOP insiders have sent those signals, and rightly so.
Yet Trump’s rise is more consistent with The Party Decides than many perceive.
“The party,” defined as broadly as it is in the book, includes a lot of voices that either support Trump or regard him as acceptable. And many members of “the party” who abhor Trump sent mixed signals and cues to voters. The contents of those signals help to explain why so many primary voters see Trump as the best choice.
Who Is Most Powerful in “The Party” and Why?
Because The Party Decides construes parties to include not just top politicians and party insiders, but also issue-advocacy groups and activists, testing its thesis requires observers to figure out the relative power of various factions in “the party.”
Here’s a hypothesis: The elements of “the party” that sent pro-Trump cues or “Trump is at least acceptable” signals to primary voters—Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Breitbart.com, The Drudge Report, The New York Post, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Jeff Sessions, Rick Scott, Jan Brewer, Joe Arpaio—are simply more powerful, relative to National Review, Mitt Romney, John McCain, and other “Trump is unacceptable” forces, than previously thought.