How the Party Decided on Trump

The billionaire’s bid for the nomination was opposed by many insiders—but his success reveals the ascendance of other elements of the party coalition.

Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters

In The Party Decides, an influential book about how presidential nominees are selected, political scientists John Zaller, Hans Noel, David Karol, and Marty Cohen argue that despite reforms designed to wrest control of the process from insiders at smoke-filled nominating conventions, political parties still exert tremendous influence on who makes it to general elections. They do so partly through “invisible primaries,” the authors posited—think of how the Republican establishment coalesced around George W. Bush in 2000, long before any ballots were cast, presenting him as a fait accompli to voters who’d scarcely started to think about the election; or how insider Democrats elevated Hillary Clinton this election cycle.

The authors argue that political parties convince voters to ratify their choices in primary elections by sending cues or signals. Crucially, when they say that “political parties” sway voters with these signals, they don’t just mean prominent elected officials and insiders at the RNC and DNC. As they see it, “the party encompasses interest groups, issue-advocacy groups, ideological activists chatting over beers, pundits aligned with “the party,” even bloggers who belong to its coalition.

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,, 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.

And their ascendent power is no accident.

The rise of these “populist right” actors and their most Trumpish beliefs were abetted by signals and cues sent this cycle and in years past by much of the rest of “the party,” including many of the people who are fighting hardest to stop Trump right now.

Ted Cruz is a perfect illustration. He is the last man standing, barely, between Trump and the delegates he needs to win on the first ballot at the GOP convention in Cleveland.

At this point, Cruz has savaged Trump’s character.  “We wouldn’t tolerate these values in our children,” one Cruz ad says. “Why would we want them in a president?” Another ad accuses Trump of “a pattern of sleaze going back decades.”

These attacks are, I think, accurate.

But it isn’t surprising that Cruz’s attacks rang hollow to many Republican primary voters who can’t help but remember the many months when Cruz lavished extravagant praise on Trump, stating outright that his candidacy was a boon, not a bane to the GOP. Cruz even proclaimed himself “grateful” that the celebrity billionaire was in the race because it ostensibly forced the media to talk about illegal immigration.

When Trump suggested that Mexico was sending its rapists to the United States, Cruz went on television to defend him and accuse his critics of “political correctness.”

Cruz suggested that Trump is worthy of respect on several occasions.

“Oh, I’m a big fan of Donald Trump,” he told reporters. “...Donald Trump is a friend of mine. I like and respect Donald. Many of the other Republican candidates have used this opportunity to take a stick and smack Donald Trump. I ain’t gonna do it.”

On another occasion, Cruz said that Trump “speaks the truth.”

Cruz even implied that there was no substantive reason to attack Trump––those doing so were just caving to the incentives of “the Washington media” and its “games”:

Cruz always knew better.

He knew that Trump’s “rapist” remarks were objectionable on the merits, that the critiques of it weren’t “political correctness” run amok. He knew that Trump is a man of poor character, is out of his depth on foreign affairs, and has little grasp of domestic policy. He knew the candidates attacking Trump earnestly objected to much about the man, and that the billionaire frequently tells lies and untruths to the public.

But Cruz saw that Trump was popular with a faction of the Republican base, so he cozied up to the demagogue, became a mendacious apologist for his egregious misbehavior, and brazenly misled the public about Trump’s character. Cruz did this because he thought that he could co-opt Trump’s popularity and win over a lot of his populist supporters. Instead, he helped to legitimate Trump, ratified the narrative that Trump alone forces the media to pay attention to the issues most important to a faction of Republican voters, and sapped some of the strongest critiques of Trump—the ones that Cruz would later used in his own attack ads—of their potency.

Cruz is, of course, just one dishonest man. Other members of “the party,” including other candidates on the debate stage beside him, were attacking Trump.

For months, however, they weren’t doing so any more than they were attacking one another. At times, it seemed like Jeb Bush disliked Marco Rubio as much as Trump. He aimed his fire at his fellow Floridian because, at the time, it seemed politically expedient. And Rubio, at times, directed his fire at rivals he’d prefer to Trump.

That, too, sent signals and cues to voters.

Meanwhile, even as many in “the party” signaled discomfort with Trump, as many people with as much stature signaled that Rubio was unacceptable because of his record on immigration; that Paul was unacceptable because of his non-interventionism; that Christie was unacceptable because of his New Jersey scandals; that Ben Carson was unacceptable because he was out of his depth; that Kasich was unacceptable because of his dismal poll numbers and moderate temperament; that Cruz was unacceptable because he’s an unlikable, Machiavellian jerk.

“A central claim of this book,” the authors of The Party Decides wrote, “is that parties resist candidates who are unacceptable to important members of the coalition, even when those candidates are popular with voters.” But 2016 offered no opportunity to test that thesis because “the party” signaled that everyone was unacceptable.

An “unacceptable” candidate had to emerge as the winner.

Only after Trump had surged to many victories did significant elements of “the party” signal that he was uniquely unacceptable. National Review’s “Against Trump” issue and the rise of #NeverTrump cuts against the thesis of The Party Decides.

Consider, however, that this is the third cycle in a row where large factions of “the party” could be found signaling that every candidate available was unacceptable, a dearth of cohesion that helps explain why McCain/Palin and Romney/Ryan both lost. In 2008, it was easy to explain the dysfunction of the Republican primary by pointing to all the factors that stopped stronger candidates from entering the race.  Come 2012, the fact that Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all had stints as frontrunners—and that Mitt Romney had to twist himself in pretzels to secure the nomination—should have hinted that more general factors were preventing the GOP from agreeing on a nominee.

The 2016 primaries clarify what’s going on.

Here are some of the cues and signals that even anti-Trump members of “the party” have sent to voters, over many years, that made the rise of a populist demagogue possible if not likely, and that Trump voters absorbed into their world views:

  • Career politicians cannot be trusted. This widespread conceit in “the party” has effectively made it impossible for candidates with governing records and public sector experience to be accepted by large swaths of GOP primary voters.
  • When the base doesn’t get what it wants, it is because of betrayal by party elites, never because a majority of Americans disagree with what the base wants.
  • Rhetorical stridency is a better heuristic for loyalty than core principles or governing record—and there is nothing disqualifying about extreme incivility (hence, for example, a buttoned up think tank giving a statesmanship award to Rush Limbaugh, a gleeful purveyor of bombastic insults).
  • Complaints about racism and sexism are always cynical fabrications, intended be used as cudgels against conservatives.
  • Political correctness in governance is one of the biggest problems facing America.
  • Illegal immigration poses an existential threat to America.
  • President Obama has deliberately made bad deals with foreign countries to weaken America.

If any movement conservatives in the #NeverTrump crowd doubt that “the party” has sent all of those signals or cues, I’ll gladly expound on any of them. Taken together, it’s easy to see why a majority of an electorate that bought into those premises would be more attracted to Trump than to anyone else in the GOP field.

Writing in National Review, David French, a staunch proponent of #NeverTrump, rightly insists that conservatives should not fall into line. “Will you sacrifice your integrity, your moral fiber, and your intellect for the sake of a single election cycle?” he asks. “A person who spends the next several months defending the indefensible, trying to make sense of the senseless, and excusing the inexcusable stands to do permanent damage to his reputation and the reputation of the movement.” In the recent past, through alliance with the biggest demagogues in talk radio, on Fox News, at, and elsewhere on the web, the conservative movement already sacrificed a measure of its integrity, did permanent damage to its reputation, and lost standing in its coalition to irresponsible populists.

Look again at some of the figures who’ve done the most to signal that Trump is acceptable, or even that he is preferable: Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Joe Arpaio, higher-ups at, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter. It isn’t as if no one warned the right about the dangers these people posed to their coalition. Few heeded the warnings. Until they recognize their error and grapple with it, they are unlikely to rebuild a coalition that is worthy of electing a president.

Now, as delegates across the nation scrutinize convention rules and their own consciences, “the party” may yet thwart Trump’s push for the nomination. But whether he falls barely short, or becomes the GOP nominee, as is more likely, every last Republican should understand how the wrongheaded signals that their party sent about other candidates and American politics generally are substantially responsible for his rise; because whatever comes of Trump, the parts of “the party” most opposed to his rise will keep losing ground to demagogic populists aplenty until they persuasively critique people and ideas that they once abided.

It isn’t enough to say #NeverTrump without renouncing the signals and cues that gave rise to him.

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