Parties need to vet candidates—before the primary ballot is printed

A Precinct 5 Democratic Farm Labor Party voter

Who sends the politicians who govern us? Increasingly, the answer is: activist groups. Many are recruiting and supporting candidates who, in the past, would have been seen as too extreme or inexperienced to be viable. Among professionals, candidate quality is a growing concern. “It’s become like a clown car,” says a political consultant. “Everyone thinks they’re qualified and everyone jumps in.”

In a new Brookings report, political scientist Raymond J. La Raja (of the University of Massachusetts Amherst) and I take an in-depth look at how activist groups are re-engineering who enters politics. Activist groups both on the right and left are building independent candidate pipelines, outside the influence of traditional gatekeepers like party officials and their surrogates.

In some respects, that seems like a good thing. The outsourcing of the candidate supply-chain may provide useful ventilation for the political system. But opening pathways for untested and extreme candidates could also cause more volatility and chaos in government. To strike a positive balance between openness and chaos, we argue, it’s essential to help the parties retain influence in “sending” the people who govern us.

Political consultants tend to have multi-year perspectives and a view of multiple campaigns and candidates. For insight into changes in the candidate pipeline, we surveyed members of the American Association of Political Consultants. Our sample reflects a diversity of partisanship and ideology, a broad range of campaign specialties, and substantial experience working on campaigns (15 years, on average). Among the results:

  • Activist groups are displacing parties as candidate gatekeepers. A large majority of consultants in our survey (almost 80 percent) say that outside groups play a more important role in recruiting and training candidates than five to ten years ago, whereas a solid plurality say the role of party organizations and their surrogates has stayed the same. Asked to appraise the importance of parties and outside groups today, 82 percent say that groups and activists are somewhat or very important in recruiting and training candidates, a slightly more influential role than the consultants attributed to the parties and their surrogates.
  • Ideology is supplanting experience among candidate characteristics. A majority (61 percent) say candidates’ experience in public office has declined over the past five to ten years, and only 13 percent say experience has increased. Seventy-one percent say that more candidates have a strong ideological viewpoint, and nearly 40 percent say “a lot more” are strongly ideological. Just as significant: a plurality of the consultants (48 percent) say that more candidates have backgrounds as issue activists than five to ten years ago—and a plurality (43 percent) say fewer candidates have personal connections to party leaders in the state.
  • Candidate quality has declined. Asked how quality has changed over the time the consultants have worked in politics, 46 percent (a plurality) say it has gotten worse, and only 13 percent say it has improved. Almost half the consultants rate the quality of U.S. House and Senate candidates as fair (38 percent) or poor (11 percent). Republican consultants are more likely than Democratic ones to see a decline in quality.

In comments and interviews, those survey findings received pointed support. The “clown car” quotation at the beginning of this post is unusual in its colorful manner of expression but not in the sentiment it expresses. “I believe more candidates are running; however, the aggregate quality of those running has lowered,” was a typical comment. Other respondents cited a rise in extremism and anger. “Both parties are getting more ideological candidates that appeal to the extremes of their party, Republican and Democrat,” said one consultant. “The most significant change came in 2010 on the Republican side, and we’re starting to see it on the Democratic side now. Candidates who are driven by a ‘rage against the machine’—rejecting the national party orthodoxy and pushing out to the edges of the bell curve.”

To some extent, these trends reflect anger in the electorate and the ideological polarization of the two parties. But they likely also reflect important institutional differences between outside activists and party regulars. Activist groups tend to be more interested in ideological purity than are party regulars, and less interested in the workaday business of governing. Likewise, outside activists attract and cultivate political newcomers without institutional encumbrances, whereas party regulars prefer proven team players. Outside groups tend to think in terms of individual candidates and particular issues in specific races; party regulars think more in terms of institution-building and what it takes to win in a succession of elections over time.

Both perspectives are important, and in any case it is impossible to prevent independent groups from moving into the candidate-selection space, even if one were inclined to try. Holding back the rising tide won’t work.

What can work is to strengthen the position of the institutional parties so that they maintain voice and influence in the process of developing candidacies—not instead of voters and activists, but alongside them. An important task is to reduce legal and regulatory barriers that disadvantage parties relative to outside groups and individual candidates, as we have argued previously.

More specifically, the party organizations need to find ways to reassert more control over their candidate selection processes. There are all kinds of ways to do that: a pre-primary “endorsement” convention as used by Massachusetts Democrats for statewide offices; a pre-primary straw poll or beauty contest in which elected leaders and party elders would weigh in on contenders; a requirement that office-seekers receive sign-offs from some number of state and country party chairs; and so on. The important thing is that party regulars and political professionals weigh in on candidate quality—before candidates reach the primary ballot.