Political analysts sometimes refer to the process by which candidacies emerge and test their viability as the "invisible primary": activities like candidate recruitment, training, networking, grassroots cultivation, and more. The practice has changed drastically in recent years, with far-reaching effects. This paper examines these alterations and their effects on American democracy, especially focusing on the role of independent groups in shaping the primary battlefield.
Table of Contents
I. Introduction and summary
II. ‘Who sent these people? They sent themselves’
III. Republicans’ revolution, and counter-revolution
IV. Democrats and the ‘Indivisible’ primary
V. Hard questions about candidate quality
VI. Whither—wither?—the party gatekeepers?
VII. Help the parties handle it
The late Abner J. Mikva—congressman, federal judge, and White House counsel—loved to recount his introduction to the world of politics. In 1948, when he was a 22-year-old law student in Chicago, he walked into the office of the nearest Democratic Party ward headquarters and offered to volunteer for Adlai Stevenson’s gubernatorial campaign. The local ward committeeman, a small-time boss named Timothy O’Sullivan, “took the cigar out of his mouth and glared at me and said, ‘Who sent you?’ I said, ‘Nobody sent me.’ He put the cigar back in his mouth and he said, ‘We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.’ This was the beginning of my political career in Chicago.”1
“Who sent you?” is among the most important questions in American politics—and among the most neglected. The startup and development phases of the political lifecycle, where candidacies are conceived, launched, and formed, set the parameters for everything that follows, from primaries and general elections to governing for decades to come. Political parties and machine bosses, the Timothy O’Sullivans of the world, have always understood the importance of the candidate pipeline and have sought to regulate it, carefully screening entrants for loyalty, electability, and political skill. Historically, they didn’t want nobody that nobody sent. But their heyday is long past. Today, activists and interest groups recognize that primary elections are where the action is, and they increasingly realize that they need to groom candidacies from the very earliest stages. By the time the primary ballot is printed, it’s often too late.
Today, activists and interest groups recognize that primary elections are where the action is, and they increasingly realize that they need to groom candidacies from the very earliest stages.
Political analysts sometimes refer to the process by which candidacies emerge and test their viability as the invisible primary. Although the term is often used to designate pre-primary fundraising, it properly also includes a wider range of activities: candidate recruitment, training, networking, team-building, grassroots cultivation, and more. Compared to electoral dynamics, the invisible primary has received little study and analysis. Yet in recent years, it has changed—and it continues to change, with far-reaching effects.
In this paper, we examine some of those changes and attempt to assess their implications. We use mixed methods: analysis of data; interviews with activist groups, party officials, and political consultants; and a survey of political consultants, which we conducted in conjunction with the American Association of Political Consultants. We pay particular attention to the role of independent groups and networks in shaping the primary battlefield. Our findings include:
- The invisible primary is a growth industry. Candidate self-recruitment and informal vetting by donors and endorsers, which displaced traditional party recruitment and vetting in the 1970s and 1980s, are giving way to a hybrid system in which independent groups play a large and growing role in “sending” candidates, and thus in determining who governs us.
- The trend (further) reduces parties’ gatekeeping role. By creating multiple new pathways to the primary ballot, independent groups are further eroding the ability of party organizations and their proxies to vet candidates—for better and for worse.
- Safe seats are independent groups’ safe harbors. Because the party organizations have their hands full battling for swing seats, outside groups have an open field in safe-seat primaries that strongly influence post-election governance. This implicit division of labor may reinforce polarization in government.
- Expect more amateurism. Independent groups often assist unconventional and inexperienced candidates who would not have been viable in the past, potentially increasing political access but also reducing candidate quality—already a point of serious concern among professionals. As one consultant told us, “It’s become like a clown car. Everyone thinks they’re qualified and everyone jumps in.”
- Expect less moderation. New groups entering the invisible-primary space tilt toward ideology, independence, and amateurism. As one Republican political consultant told us, assessing the scene: “You’re not going to see a moderating of American politics anytime soon.”
- Independent groups are doing what parties can’t. They are organizing in regions where party organizations lack resources or incentives to invest; providing outlets for volunteerism and activism that the parties lack capacity to accommodate; and identifying and sourcing talent from networks to which party organizations may lack access.
- But independent groups are not substitutes for party organizations. Though they may choose to work with party organizations, the groups are structurally and generally temperamentally independent, and their firepower can easily be turned against the parties.
- Party organizations need strengthening to stay competitive in the invisible primary. The independent groups are here to stay and can be a force for innovation and inclusion if they supplement rather than supplant party influence. But that requires removing existing barriers to the parties’ competitiveness and taking additional steps to enhance parties’ role in launching and developing candidates. Healthy politics requires that parties play a vigorous role—alongside (not instead of) voters and activists—in “sending” candidates who are competent at governing.
In 1946, when Rep. Clare Boothe Luce (R-Conn.) decided to leave the House and Connecticut’s fourth congressional district came open, Samuel F. Pryor, a top Pan-Am executive and a mover in Connecticut Republican politics, called Prescott Bush, a prominent local businessman, “to ask whether Bush might like to run for Congress. ‘If you would,’ Pryor said, ‘I think we can assure you that you’ll be the nominee.’”2 Thus could a political career begin in days of yore: with a tap on the shoulder from the party and a clear path to the nomination.
For the better part of the country’s history, the two major parties and their proxies and allies played a central (though not exclusive) role in recruiting candidates, grooming them for office, and thereby defining political viability—ability to win and fitness to serve. That system was hardly locked down or impervious to insurgents, but it gave party leaders and elected officials strong influence over who would ultimately serve, and recent evidence suggests that the system did well at finding and placing office-holders of high quality.3
Healthy politics requires that parties play a vigorous role—alongside (not instead of) voters and activists—in “sending” candidates who are competent at governing.
By the 1990s, all of that had changed. A multitude of developments in society and law allowed candidates to enter and fund primary races with little or no official support from the party. In his 1991 book, “The United States of Ambition,” Alan Ehrenhalt drew attention to the change. Ehrenhalt memorably framed and answered a seminal question. “Who sent us the political leaders we have? There is a simple answer to that question. They sent themselves. And they got where they are through a combination of ambition, talent, and the willingness to devote whatever time was necessary to seek and hold office.”4
Still, the parties, although diminished, remained in the game. Improvising and evolving, they fell back upon networks of proxies and donors to create what became known as the “invisible primary,” an informal, usually under-the-radar process in which potential candidates would test their viability by seeking funding and endorsements from party officers, elected officials, and influential constituencies such as labor unions, business organizations, and high-dollar contributors. Although sometimes portrayed as an insidious exercise in ring-kissing, the invisible primary was, and remains, an important quality control, serving to identify and encourage candidates who demonstrate temperamental steadiness, political skill, and broad support—and to screen out candidates lacking those qualities. No doubt, party vetting could and did reflect the biases of party leaders, discouraging some qualified candidates and propagating inequities, to the disadvantage of women and others. Still, gatekeepers were (and are) accountable for fielding tickets that win elections and govern successfully, ensuring quite a lot of responsiveness to public preferences and social change over time.
Gradually, however, insiders’ hold over the invisible primary fell victim to many of the same forces that shut down the smoke-filled rooms: direct candidate access to funders and media, public mistrust of parties and the establishment, and the relative displacement of traditional corporate and union political action committees (PACs) by groups and individuals making effectively unlimited independent expenditures.
PACs were linchpins of the invisible primary of a couple of decades ago. Because they are formally organized and tightly regulated entities that make direct contributors to candidates and parties (rather than using back-door channels), they are favored vehicles of corporations, trade groups, unions, and other establishment players with business before the government. Because they are often more interested in access than in ideology, and because they often invest in hopes of influencing whomever is in office, they tend to spread their bets, contributing to both sides of the aisle.
Figure 1 gives some idea of how the environment changed. In the 1980s and 1990s, individuals and PACs contended on a more or less equal footing to finance U.S. House and Senate candidacies; but in the 2000s, individuals—who tend to be more ideological and less compromise-minded than traditional PACs—pulled decisively ahead. In the wake of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law (officially, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) and subsequent court decisions allowing outside groups to spend unlimited amounts independently of parties and candidates, independent expenditures by outside activist groups soared.5
Figure 2 shows where the money came from in competitive U.S. House and Senate primaries.6 The insider-dominated invisible primary declined as money from individuals poured into primary battlefields; today, individuals dominate. Although total contributions by groups making independent expenditures remain modest by comparison with individuals’ contributions, note the rapid increase from near-zero only ten years ago. Note also that donations by individuals are often stimulated and directed by activist groups with which individuals are affiliated.
As Figure 3 shows, the relative weight of business PACs’ contributions in competitive House and Senate primary races has plummeted as a share of the total, from a peak of 62 percent in 1990 to barely above 20 percent today. In other words, business PACs have become much less important, relative to non-business PACs, in financing competitive primaries. The figure also shows that business PACs, consistent with an access strategy, continue to give to incumbents in noncompetitive primaries. Yet even here, they have experienced a relative decline in recent years due to greater giving by individuals and super PACs.
Business PACs’ contributions and expenditures have traditionally focused on moderate incumbents in both parties7; their decline relative to other PACs may help explain the pattern shown in Figure 4, which displays one measure of the trends in relative ideological extremism of candidates in U.S. House primary races.8 9
Already quite ideological in 1980, Republican primary candidates—incumbents, challengers, and open-seat contenders alike—moved on average farther right beginning in the late 1990s. Democratic primary candidates, though less ideological than Republicans in 1980, have caught up, swerving left after about 2000 (though Democratic incumbents appear more centrist than both Democratic challengers and Republican incumbents).
Today, those seeking office receive their political education in a world where their viability is determined increasingly by freelancing individuals and freewheeling activist groups, and decreasingly by party regulars and establishmentarian insiders. … It’s no wonder that organizing politicians is like herding cats.
Although the increase in extremism on both sides has many causes, we can reasonably posit that the reduced relative role of establishment money has been a factor. But money is a surface buoy marking deeper currents. Today, those seeking office receive their political education in a world where their viability is determined increasingly by freelancing individuals and freewheeling activist groups, and decreasingly by party regulars and establishmentarian insiders. Combine that development with voters’ growing hostility to traditionally qualified candidates and moderates’ growing reluctance to seek office, and it is no wonder if organizing politicians is like herding cats.
Both parties, then, are seeing a rapid decline in the relative influence of parties and establishmentarians in developing candidates and shaping the primary battlefield. But Republicans seem to be four to six years ahead of Democrats. For the GOP, a turning point came with the shock administered by the Tea Party and its conservative comrades-in-arms, such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund—followed by aftershocks and now counter-shocks.
From its inception in 2009, the Tea Party was a distinctive phenomenon. Although its conservatism fit the Republican ideological template, Tea Partiers tended to be more hostile to legislative compromise than party regulars, more angry with the Republican establishment, and more than willing to attack Republican incumbents in primary battles—which they gleefully did.10 Win or lose, their challenges sent shockwaves through the Republican political universe and influenced the behavior of (it’s safe to say) every Republican politician, including many office holders who believed their seats to be safe but flinched from taking stands that might incite a primary challenge.
The Tea Party did not operate in a vacuum. It arose amid an assortment of conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, that saw primaries as ripe for disruption. The Club for Growth, for example, was founded in 1999 to advance free-market, low-tax policies, ideas which it believed many Republicans supported too weakly. “We felt, in order to change that, we needed to get involved in primaries,” Andy Roth, the group’s vice president for government affairs, told us. The Club, according to Roth, does not coordinate or consult with the Republican Party committees, and it can and does fund challengers to Republican incumbents. Significantly, the Club rarely operates in swing districts, leaving those to the Republican Party’s House and Senate campaign committees. “We by and large only operate in conservative districts,” Roth said. “Why spend a lot of money in the primary and then spend a lot of money again in the general, when you can operate in districts where you can spend a lot of money in the primary and spend nothing in the general?”
The Tea Party did not operate in a vacuum. It arose amid an assortment of conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, that saw primaries as ripe for disruption.
Although the Club for Growth does not recruit candidates, it carefully vets them and can steer seven-figure sums to those it favors. By providing insurgents with support and examples of success, its model not only sustains existing candidates but also encourages newcomers to run. Gregg Keller, a conservative consultant and strategist based in St. Louis, told us, “There’s an infrastructure of pro-free-market firms and operatives who help candidates get launched.” Asked if this new infrastructure has changed who runs, he replied, “Yes. The difference is night and day. Access has been both demystified and democratized. People who used to think there’s no use running, because they would never win or it’s too big an unknown, are much less cowed by those factors.” Another conservative Republican consultant told us that a decade or so ago, a conservative insurgent “would get crushed by the moderate wing of the party,” whereas “there are groups now that will recruit you to run and help your campaign be successful. It probably encourages people to run who otherwise would have just stayed in their state senate seat.”
For the first election cycle or two after the rise of the Tea party, insurgents’ primary-centered tactics seemed to stun establishment Republicans into immobility. Since 2014, however, they have counter-mobilized. The most prominent example is Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s hard-hitting and well documented campaign to defeat insurgent primary challenges wherever they arise.11
Meanwhile, business interests have pushed back. “We realized candidates matter,” Scott Reed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior political strategist, told us. Like the Club for Growth, the Chamber focuses exclusively on economic issues—but from a governing rather than insurgent point of view. “Our philosophy is that the middle is going [away] in both parties,” Reed said. “The big turning point for us in this project was after the 2012 election, where we got whipped in the Senate and House.” In 2014, he said, the Chamber was directly active in 15 Republican primary, special, or runoff elections; in 2016, in nine (all of which it won). The Chamber also recruits and vets candidates. “We look at everything they say,” Reed told us. “If you say something stupid, we’re not going to support you.”
Among Republicans, a continuing spiral of counter-mobilization and counter-counter-mobilization appears to be under way as groups fight for control of the invisible-primary battle space. For example, controversial and obstructive tactics by insurgent conservative legislators in Arizona—including passage in 2010 of an immigration law that business interests believe damaged the state’s business-friendly reputation—have induced corporate executives there to launch a counterinsurgency.
“Extremism was carrying the day from a public-relations standpoint,” Neil Giuliano told us. Giuliano, a former mayor of Tempe (a township in metropolitan Phoenix), is president and CEO of Greater Phoenix Leadership. The organization of about 100 corporate CEOs seeks to wrest control of the state legislature from what they regard as unrepresentative voices that are obsessed with social issues and partisan point-scoring at the expense of the business climate and quality of life. Giuliano argues that the state’s public financing of campaigns has heightened the problem: “When you take out those relationships with donors and the community itself and have no relationships, you do whatever you want and run all kinds of bills that appeal to a very narrow part of the community.”
The group has been around since the mid-1970s (when it was known as the Phoenix Forty) but only recently embarked upon a systematic program to recruit and support business-friendly candidates—generally relatively centrist Republicans and Democrats—who emphasize legislating over point-scoring. “We’ve been identifying people who would be good candidates,” he told us. “We’ve been looking at the landscape district by district,” seeking candidates “who will have a no-crazy-bills approach to legislating and who are electable and work across the aisle in a collegial way.” In addition to recruiting, the organization provides political training and connects candidates with institutes that provide policy training. Although the group itself does not make direct campaign contributions, “Our members will write personal checks to all or some of those candidates, depending on their personal choices.” The group also partners with other business groups, such as the Arizona and Phoenix chambers of commerce, to make independent expenditures. In 2016, Giuliano reports, Greater Phoenix Leadership supported 14 candidates (out of a possible 90 state legislative races), including both newcomers and incumbents; ten were elected.
The original Tea Party was transformative for American politics in a number of ways: its decentralized, networked structure; its disruptive mindset and its antagonistic attitude to the Republican establishment; its harnessing of social media for rapid-reaction mobilization; its willingness to surface and support candidates who would not previously have been considered viable; above all, its exploitation of primary races to challenge Republican incumbents and thereby shift the entire party to the right.
Four election cycles later, the Tea Party’s tactics have been assimilated by Republicans of every stripe. The fight for the party’s soul is being fought as much in invisible primaries as in formal ones. We would be surprised if those struggles were to resolve anytime soon. Regardless of the outcome, however, we can surmise that the “outsiderization” of invisible primaries may have two kinds of structural effects. One is the further dilution of the formal party’s ability to influence the selection of its own candidates. Increasingly, the party organization looks like a bit player in nomination struggles being fought over its head.
We suspect the influx of independent groups that recruit and sustain more primary challengers may further polarize the governing environment—or at least further entrench polarization.
Second, a natural division of labor seems to be emerging. Party organizations, whose foremost concern is to seek and retain control of the governing branches, must focus disproportionate resources and attention on swing seats, battlefield states, and general elections in handful of critical races. By contrast, independent groups’ natural home is the primary battlefield in safe districts or states, where, as the Club for Growth example shows, their dollars go further and their influence is stronger. Because they so often play in safely gerrymandered districts and noncompetitive general elections, and because they can often “win” in a primary challenge even by losing (if the result is to inflect the winner’s subsequent behavior), groups on the Republican side face few constraints on how far right they can push candidates and legislators.
If those two trends continue, party organizations will focus on pulling contenders across the finish line, while the development of candidacies will increasingly become the province of outside groups and activists. Moreover, as independent groups pile into the pre-primary fray, incumbents will continue to face more challenges from candidates who are ideologically motivated and interest-group sourced. Fears of being “primaried” have already significantly complicated the process of compromise in government, because incumbents worry that any vote perceived as impure will lead to a challenge. We suspect the influx of independent groups that recruit and sustain more primary challengers may further polarize the governing environment—or at least further entrench polarization.
On the Democratic side, the outsourcing of the invisible primary to independent groups is not as advanced, but Democrats are moving to catch up. “They’re going to have to go through the growing pains Republicans went through a few years ago,” a conservative consultant said. By all appearances, they are making up for lost time.
Since the shock of the 2016 election, independent and grassroots groups have sprung up in large numbers and with dizzying speed. An only partial list includes All of Us, Brand New Congress, the Collective PAC, Emerge America, Flippable, Forward Majority, Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, Run for Something, Sister District, Swing Left, and We Will Replace You. Their business models vary all over the map. Some, such as Emerge America and Run for Something, focus on recruiting and training candidates. Some, such as Sister District and Swing Left, identify key races and mobilize resources and volunteers to tip them. Some, such as Justice Democrats, We Will Replace You, and Our Revolution, seek to push the Democratic party to the left and seem eager to challenge incumbents. Yet other groups, such as Indivisible, delegate strategy to their grassroots members. Some specialize in federal races, some in state and local races, and some do both.
Meanwhile, established groups also are scaling up their investment in invisible primaries. EMILY’s List, an organization that was founded in 1985 to support pro-choice Democratic women, has recruited and trained candidates since its earliest days. Since the 2016 election, however, it has increased those efforts by an order of magnitude, launching a “Run to Win” campaign which, as of November 2017, elicited almost 20,000 women who were interested in running—an unprecedented figure, according to Alexandra De Luca, the group’s press secretary. “We’re literally breaking down a wall in our office because we need more office space for all the people we’re bringing on,” she told us. Further downstream, EMILY’s list supports candidates with endorsements, contributions, and multiple levels of training.
“Progressive Democrats energized by Trump’s win are recruiting, training, and organizing like I’ve never seen before,” one consultant told our survey. “Women in particular are leading these efforts. Sanders supporters are prominent as well. They’re pushing local Democratic org[anization]s to the left or offering primary challenges at state and local levels.” The liberal groups are ideologically adversarial to the Tea Party, but they draw inspiration from its tactics and structure—explicitly so, in the case of Indivisible, the most prominent of the new groups.
Indivisible provides a revealing window into how the invisible primary may become, so to speak, the Indivisible primary. Shortly after the presidential election last year, two Democratic former congressional staff members published a hastily written manual for progressives seeking to organize against President Trump and the Republican Congress. The “Indivisible Guide,” as it was called, went viral and its authors, Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, capitalized on the energy they had tapped by founding the Indivisible organization. Using as their template the Tea Party Patriots’ original decentralized, grassroots-driven structure, Indivisible activists have created local affiliates with startling speed: as of mid-August, well over 6,000 of them—an average of 14 affiliates in each congressional district. The national organization provides support and coordination but does not impose a strategy or policy agenda. Levin said, “When the rubber hits the road, it’s the groups making the decisions. The theory is that from having this movement of locally led Indivisible groups, everything else flows. From that you get your programs and policies and candidates.”
What struck us in our interviews with progressives, however, is that amateurism seems often to be an ideological commitment among them.
Indivisible groups were instrumental in pressuring members of Congress not to end Obamacare, again taking a leaf from the Tea Party by showing up, well briefed and vocal, at members’ town hall meetings. Beyond that, as befits such a decentralized movement, tactics vary widely. In the South Carolina district of conservative Republican Rep. Joe Wilson (famous for shouting “You lie!” when President Obama addressed Congress in 2009), local Indivisible activists—many of them new to politics and all of them volunteers—work the local media to publicize and excoriate Wilson’s record, protest and shadow him in the district, and build a network of activists. “We are unapologetically progressive in our views,” said Samantha Edwards, a 26-year-old graphic designer who, together with her sister Julie Edwards, is leading the anti-Wilson effort. “That was missing for me in the Democratic Party—not knowing what I’m fighting for and why. I’m just picking the party that’s not the Republican Party?”
Indivisible Midlands, as the group in Wilson’s district is called, does not at present recruit candidates, but a goal, the organizers say, is to develop a full progressive ticket. Nor does the group seek to pressure or defeat Democratic incumbents, partly because there are so few in South Carolina to pressure. The same is not true of the Indivisible affiliate in Berwyn, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. There, activists are unhappy with their Democratic member of Congress, Dan Lipinski. “He’s not progressive on gay marriage,” Marla Rose, a professional writer and the founder of the group, told us. “He’s pretty silent on immigration. I think people here don’t feel he’s reflective of the third district.” The group has not yet settled on its strategy, but Rose hopes the group will try to take out Lipinski in the primary. Asked if their efforts might cost the party the seat, she said it was a risk she could live with. “I’d say we can’t allow fear to hold us back from progress. I understand the fear, though.”
No two independent groups use quite the same model. EMILY’s List, for example, recruits online and through its networks, stays in touch with those who don’t run in hopes of developing future candidacies, and provides training and both direct and indirect financial support to those who do run. Justice Democrats, a Bernie Sanders-inspired group which says it seeks to “rebuild the Democratic Party from scratch,” recruits and vets progressive candidacies, makes endorsements, and provides endorsees with campaign services, such as communications and creative services, message training, digital tracking tools, and email fundraising. We could go on…and on. The point is that the quantity and variety of progressive activism are staggering.
Sorting through the bewildering assortment of new groups on the Democratic side, we notice three patterns—not applicable to every organization, of course.
First, the groups are wary of the formal Democratic Party organization and prize their independence from it. Typical remarks of progressive activists we spoke with include: “Inherently we don’t work with the Democratic Party.” “We do what we do, they do what they do.” “We’re keeping ourselves at a very strategic distance. We don’t want to be an arm of the party. We’re worried about compromises that would happen if we became an arm of the party.” Many believe that the party failed them and the country, and they are reluctant to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Second, the groups are pulling the party to the left. We interviewed no one who wanted to make the party less pure or less liberal, and many who expressed reluctance to compromise ideologically, even if purism costs Democrats some winnable races.
Third, and what may be most significant in the longer run: the new groups are magnets for amateur candidates.
Several factors abet the trend toward amateurism. One is the efficiency and low cost of internet recruiting. Another is the rise of the hobbyist candidate, as Raymond Buckley, the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and a recent past president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, put it—a trend fueled in part by social media. “Part of this has to do with the internet,” Buckley said. “Everyone you know agrees with you. Unfortunately, none of them live in your district.” Meanwhile, as voters have grown more cynical about politics, they have grown more hostile to professionalism, and activists follow suit. “Cynicism has devalued skills, experience, and preparation, leading more novices to run,” said one political consultant in our survey. Finally, and not inconsequentially, the new independent groups often explicitly favor amateurs in their recruiting.
The rising tide of amateurism is by no means limited to the Democratic side; it has been at least as evident among Republicans.12 As a Republican consultant commented, “Republican primaries used to be about who had the best résumé for the job. Now they are much more about ideology.” What struck us in our interviews with progressives, however, is that amateurism seems often to be an ideological commitment among them. Assessing the surge of activism on the left, a Republican consultant we spoke with made this observation: “It [the left] has always been centered around issues, and now it’s centered on the type of person running.” His observation strikes us as trenchant. Progressive groups frequently seek to change not just who is elected to office, or how elected officials behave in office, but what kind of person is viable for office in the first place. Progressives seem interested in changing, as it were, the ecology of candidate emergence, providing evolutionary niches and ladders for contenders who often were not previously competitive.
An example is Run for Something, a group launched in January of 2017. Co-founder Ross Morales Rocketto has worked in politics for 15 years and knows his way around, having worked for multiple campaigns and as a political consultant. “We’re looking to build a deep progressive bench across the country for offices going into the future,” he told us—an important goal for progressives, because Democrats hemorrhaged more than 900 state legislative seats during the Obama years.
Focusing on state and local races, the group signs up people who are interested in “running for something,” then interviews and screens them using conference calls, trainings, and meetings with volunteers. For those who run, it can provide coaching and mentoring, referrals and networking with donors and campaign operatives, and endorsements and funding. As of late October, Rocketto told us, more than 11,000 individuals had expressed interested in running, about 1,500 had been screened, and more 300 had filed to be on the ballot in the 2017-2018 electoral cycle.
Run for Something seeks candidates who are 35 or younger, have strong roots in their community, are interested in running a vigorous grassroots campaign, and, of course, are politically progressive. What the group does not screen for, Rocketto emphasized, is candidate viability, at least in any traditional sense. “We think viability is a construct of political elites and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Rocketto said. That is, professionals and donors make too many presuppositions about who belongs in politics, a determination better left to voters. “It might be just as easy for someone else to be viable,” he said. “We don’t necessarily believe viability is intrinsic.”
Not all groups using the outsider-focused business model are ideological, at least not explicitly. New Politics, a group founded in 2013, seeks to recruit and support “transformational leaders,” according to Emily Cherniack, the group’s founder. The group scouts for talent (“We don’t target districts per se; we’re about the people”); offers training programs (with 500 graduates so far); encourages promising graduates to run; coaches them through the campaign process; helps them connect with funders; and tries to maintain relationships with successful candidates once in office. It’s a soup-to-nuts model aimed at making political careers more attractive and accessible to what the group calls “servant leaders”—non-career politicians—and thereby, as a spokesperson told us, “fundamentally disrupting and reshaping the ecosystem.”
New Politics’ proof of concept came in 2014, when it recruited Seth Moulton to challenge and ultimately defeat a Democratic U.S. House incumbent in Massachusetts. In 2016, the group says it recruited 23 candidates, of whom 17 reached general-election ballots and 13 were elected. For 2018, the group aims for 50 candidates (20 for Congress and 30 for state and local offices). The group does not vet for ideology, but its candidates to date have been predominantly Democratic.
Individually, such groups may or may not prove influential. But multiply them by the dozens, in both parties. Then add the fact that each new entrant in the invisible-primary space blazes the way for still others to come in. Over time, as this dynamic process unfolds, decisions about candidate viability are likely to shift away from parties and establishment bigwigs, and toward activist groups with all kinds of agendas.
We have no comprehensive data on the number of actors flowing into the invisible-primary space, but our investigation leaves us in no doubt that it is growing, and rapidly. Activists increasingly understand that by the time the candidate field takes shape, it’s often already too late to wield the influence they seek. Whether to elect someone they like, evict someone they don’t like, or pressure an incumbent or a party to swerve left or right, groups realize that they need to get horses into the race. No wonder the supply side of politics is where the action is moving. As Run for Something’s website succinctly puts the case: “2016 taught us that who the candidate is matters.” The result, as one consultant commented in our survey: “It really has now become the wild west with all the investment.”
Whether to elect someone they like, evict someone they don’t like, or pressure an incumbent or a party to swerve left or right, groups realize that they need to get horses into the race.
What are the implications? It’s too early to be sure, of course, but we think we see some important changes already. Perhaps the most basic of all candidate screens in the past has been that running for office is difficult. It always will be difficult. But the vast new infrastructure springing up to develop and launch candidacies will reduce the difficulty to some considerable degree. Winning may not get much easier, but running will. And many people who, in the past, would have been screened out as unsuitable—sometimes wrongly, but often rightly—will find their way to the primary ballot. By circumventing traditional gatekeepers, independent groups affect not only who wins primary races but, no less important, who runs, and even who thinks about running.
The groups celebrate this change, as one would expect. Kate Black, the chief of staff of EMILY’s List, said, “We’re seeing more and more people entering the political arena through a variety of channels, and I think that’s good for our political discourse.” Historically, for example, women have been less likely than men to run for office; efforts like those of EMILY’s List and Emerge America may help redress that imbalance—surely a healthy result, inasmuch as traditional party networks, historically dominated by men, tended to filter out women. Moreover, although some activists, like Run for Something’s Rocketto, seek to disrupt the traditional gatekeeping system (or what is left of it), others emphasize coexistence. A’shanti Gholar, the political director of Emerge America, told us:
One of the things we always say at Emerge is that we exist to complement efforts, never to compete with anyone. There will still be the traditional way of recruiting a candidate. “Oh, hey, your family is in politics, or you’re super well known, or you’re very wealthy and you can self-fund—you should run for office.” That exists and I’m not saying they don’t make phenomenal candidates and elected officials. But doing recruitment that way has also led us [the country] to the position we’re in. I definitely think that for the grassroots activist who want to run for office, they will without a doubt connect to groups like Emerge and our affiliates.
Political consultants we surveyed take a less sanguine view. With the help of the American Association of Political Consultants, we surveyed the association’s email list of 6,330 and received 280 responses.13 (We queried consultants because for decades, they have been the core professionals of political campaigns.) As Figure 5 shows, 79 percent of consultants say that outside groups play a more important role in recruiting and training candidates than five to ten years ago—whereas a solid plurality says the role of party organizations and their surrogates has stayed the same.
Where does this increased relative influence of outside groups leave us today? When asked to appraise the importance of parties and outside groups right now, 82 percent of consultants say that issue/ideological groups or activists (including super PACs) are somewhat or very important in recruiting and training candidates today—a slightly more influential role than the consultants attributed to the party organizations and to the party’s officials and surrogates. As Figure 6 shows, Republicans believe their party’s recruitment and training efforts are less important than do Democrats, perhaps a sign that the collapse of party gatekeeping has progressed farther on the Republican side.
At the same time, when consultants were asked how primary candidates have changed over the past five to ten years, they reported that ideology is displacing experience among candidate characteristics. As Figure 7 shows, a majority (61 percent) said primary candidates’ experience in public office has declined over the past five to ten years, and only 13 percent said experience has increased. Seventy-one percent also said that more primary candidates have a strong ideological viewpoint, and nearly 40 percent said “a lot more” are strongly ideological.
Just as significant: as shown in Figure 8, a plurality of 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.
That finding reinforces what turns up in our interviews: party regulars are losing influence over candidates, and ideological groups are gaining.
What is probably at least in part a consequence of those changes is shown in Figure 9. Asked how the quality of candidates in primary races has changed over the time the consultants have worked in politics, a 46 percent plurality say it has gotten worse (and only 13 percent said it has improved). Almost half rate the quality of candidates running for House and Senate as fair (38 percent) or poor (11 percent).
When we break out the results by political party, as shown in Figure 10, we find that Republican consultants are more worried about candidate quality than are Democratic consultants.
In our survey, consultants’ responses to our open-ended request for comments consistently expressed concern about candidate quality.14 For example:
- “I believe more candidates are running; however, the aggregate quality of those running has lowered.”
- “One-issue candidates, activist driven. Specifically, more local races regarding environment, LGBTQ, and general dislike of ‘establishment’ candidates has led to more primaries. Sadly, this also leads to many candidates who jump into races not having any political experience, legislative experience, and no ability to fundraise.”
- “In primaries, at every level, there are fewer candidates who have prior experience in public office.”
- “The challengers that come out are not in touch with the[ir] communities in the way they think they are. They don’t participate in local community boards, civic associations, or police precinct community councils.”
Similarly, unprompted comments conveyed a clear view that candidates have become more angry and extreme.
- “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.”
- “Both parties are getting more ideological candidates that appeal to the extremes of their party, Republican and Democrat.”
- “Ideological purity is more important than ever before. Any variance can and will be exploited.”
- “More extreme. More willing to challenge the status quo.”
- “Primary campaigns are almost singularly focused on attaining the ‘most conservative/liberal’ label.”
If the candidate pipeline is selecting for independence, amateurism, and extremism, that trend is likely compounded by the growing reluctance of moderates to run for office in the first place. Recent research conducted independently by the political scientists Andrew Hall of Stanford University and Danielle M. Thomsen of Syracuse University finds that moderates are repelled by the animus and polarization that characterize today’s campaigns, and moderates find themselves frustrated and unwelcome in legislative bodies that are polarized and often paralyzed. Their reluctance to run opens the field for ideologues and further drives polarization. “The consequence is that partisan polarization in Congress has become self-reinforcing,” writes Thomsen.15
Assessing the long-term effect of the outsourcing of candidate development to independent groups requires one to consider the Rodney Dangerfield question: compared to what? The answer to that question depends on the answer to yet another: will the independent pipelines supplement or supplant candidate recruitment and vetting by party regulars?
Here is how one progressive group, Sister District, describes what it does:
When you sign up to volunteer, you will be connected with your local Sister District team, which is led by volunteer District Captains. Your team will be matched with a strategically important and winnable race that needs your help, and you will be given specific actions to take to support that race. Actions may include (but are not limited to) donating money, spreading the word on social media, phone-banking, text-banking, fundraising, and canvassing. Sister District will be in direct contact with the campaigns we support and we will have specific action items from the campaign for volunteers to take on.16
We quote this language because it describes to a T what the political parties did for themselves several generations ago. Those functions are being outsourced, so to speak. Emerge America’s Gholar, a former Democratic National Committee staff member, explained to us that she moved to outside activism when she found the Democratic Party organization unable to provide enough support to women who wanted to enter politics. Though not for lack of trying, the DNC “didn’t have the necessary focus on building the bench and we weren’t focused enough on women.” Asked about the implications of the appearance on the scene of groups like Emerge America, she said:
There are definitely more groups that have popped up. I do think the model has changed. This is no longer seen as, “The DNC has to do training, everything has to be centered there.” These groups can actually own the Democratic training space, and the DNC is there to provide additional support to the candidates to help raise their profiles.
Still, Gholar emphasized that Emerge America has no interest in supplanting the party organization. “The DNC is beyond super supportive of Emerge America,” she told us. “State parties have a lot of work to do with not a lot of resources,” she said. Independent groups can bring a sustained stream of resources to candidate sourcing while parties focus on winning key battles.
Independent groups supplement the parties in a more important respect: they can target every district, regardless of the likelihood of winning—something parties cannot consistently do, because they are hard pressed to prioritize swing races and winnable contests. Independent groups, by contrast, can fight anywhere and everywhere. Like guerilla bands that can live off the land, outside groups can operate inexpensively in areas where there is little immediate hope of winning. Instead of focusing on the next election, they can work on gradually altering the candidate pool and the local political climate. These investments by outside groups might have long-term payoffs for both parties, or they might tend to elbow the parties aside, or perhaps both.
Like guerilla bands that can live off the land, outside groups can operate inexpensively in areas where there is little immediate hope of winning. … These investments by outside groups might have long-term payoffs for both parties, or they might tend to elbow the parties aside, or perhaps both.
“We don’t want to just get engaged in the same old swing districts that people have been focusing on,” Indivisible’s Ezra Levin told us. The group intends to be active in all 435 congressional districts, including the deepest red ones. One of the most interesting aspects of Indivisible is that it has affiliates operating in Republican redoubts where progressives have little or no realistic chance of near-term electoral success. “If you’re in a deep red district, you’re not left behind; there’s still a way you can get engaged in the electoral process, the same way you can get engaged in the legislative process,” Levin said. Similarly, Emerge America intends to build a presence in all 50 states (and had organizations in 25 states as of October, an increase from 16 at the beginning of 2017). The goal is to develop pools of women ready to run as Democrats when opportunities open in hostile territory, so that activists and the party no longer need to scramble to find candidates among thin pickings. “We’re not going to concede any ground,” Emerge’s Gholar said. “That’s one of the reasons the Democratic Party is where it is.”
An example of Indivisible’s strategy is Indivisible Midlands, the previously mentioned affiliate in Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s district in South Carolina. Julie and Samantha Edwards, the group’s local organizers, are aware that the district is an “ugly gerrymander.” Still, “We will never say that the cause is hopeless,” Samantha Edwards said. They believe knocking on doors, organizing opposition, and relentlessly birddogging Wilson and other local Republicans can erode Republicans’ aura of impregnability. Pushing back and showing fight could, in turn, bring more progressives forward as activists and candidates. In five years, Samantha Edwards said, Indivisible Midlands hopes to have a full slate of progressive candidates on the ballot. “What we’re finding, in part by connecting the groups that are the tiny breakfast-party Democratic groups, is there are a lot of us here and we’re building our power. [We are] letting our representatives know we’re not a tiny force in your district, and we’re coming together on making plans to be effective.”
Whether organizing behind enemy lines can change the electoral map remains to be seen, but it is, in any case, an experiment that independent groups are well positioned to try. They can also provide intangible but crucial commodities that the Democratic and Republican party organizations can no longer supply: inspiration, solidarity, and—not to put too fine a point on it—joy.
In their heyday generations ago, political parties provided everyday avocations for millions of Americans. They offered local clubs, outings, torchlight marches, songs, regalia—not just for a short period before the election but year-round. Long before social media, young people looked to parties to feel connected and empowered.17 That world, of course, is long gone. Few Americans have any direct interaction with political parties, and most people’s indirect involvement consists of watching a few debates, receiving some mail pieces, and voting.
Independent groups can also provide intangible but crucial commodities that the Democratic and Republican party organizations can no longer supply: inspiration, solidarity, and—not to put too fine a point on it—joy.
The collapse of parties as civic organizations has had dramatic repercussions, which we will not undertake to enumerate here. Suffice to say that the Edwards sisters and their Indivisible confrères seek to fill this gap with what they call “laughtivism.” Their campaign against the Republicans’ efforts to repeal Obamacare included music videos and a “zombie walk” at the state capitol (because the Republican effort refused to die), as well as more traditional activities. “There was no joy in progressive politics in South Carolina,” Julie Edwards said. “It was all doom and gloom and ‘there’s no hope of winning.’ We try to have fun, even in these very challenging times.” Much though one might wish the case were otherwise, today’s political parties are in no position to offer joyful solidarity and everyday engagement, even if they were inclined to try. But Indivisible actively seeks to do so. “What we found after the election was that people wanted to really engage their whole selves in something,” Ezra Levin, the group’s co-founder, told us. “This has spread not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.”
How do the party organizations view these newcomers and the energy they bring? We asked four Democratic state party leaders, in Kentucky, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and South Carolina: enough to provide at least a taste of how institutional and insurgent elements interact. The leaders said, in effect, that the surge of independent activism is a godsend—for now.
Asked about candidate recruitment by outside groups, Raymond Buckley, the New Hampshire chair, said, “I am seeing that across the country, and I think it is absolutely fabulous. Our job is one thing only, which is to elect Democrats. If there are groups out there recruiting and funding and helping elect Democrats, that’s only going to help us move forward together.” In Kentucky, Mary Nishimuta—who left one of the new independent groups, Brand New Congress, to become the state Democrats’ executive director—said that activist networks were helping the party meet its goal of running a challenger in every House district. “The state Democratic party is taking on a more nontraditional role of opening up our arms, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that there are so many new organizations that have come up,” she said. “[We are] embracing all that energy and going through all the races and saying, ‘Who do you know?’” In Minnesota, state party chairman Ken Martin (who is the president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs) said the surge of activism has brought candidates out of the woodwork. “That energy has really swollen our ranks in terms of volunteerism, and that’s translating in people stepping up to run for office. Where in the past we might have struggled to find people to run for down-ballot races, we’re seeing multiple candidates come forward. Right now, at this stage of the game normally, we’d be much further behind on our candidate recruitment goals.” In South Carolina, state party executive director Christale Spain said the independent groups provided a kind of surge capacity, absorbing an influx of volunteers after the 2016 election, before the state party was geared up to use them. She said of the groups, “They’re really kind of filling a void.”
At the same time, however, dealing with ambitious, energetic, and independent-minded outsiders also requires delicate conversations. South Carolina’s Spain told us, “A lot of times they [activists] don’t understand the purpose of the party. I do have a lot of those conversations about what the party is doing.” In some cases, party officials find themselves mediating between activists and leaders—explaining to a group, for instance, why an atheist candidate may be the wrong fit for the district, or why certain tactics are likely to backfire. The group might or might not adjust its efforts. “It just has to be strategic,” Spain said of the activist surge. “That’s the fear I have. It needs to be constituency based. They don’t understand the importance of making sure the right person knocks on the right door.”
For both parties, Democratic and Republican, the entry in force of independent groups into the invisible primary presents the same dilemma: by their nature, the groups are dual-use. They can support the party one day and turn against it the next. They are ambitious and energetic, but they are not, from the party organization’s point of view, accountable to broader sets of voters or tasked with the hard slog of governing. Overt civil war has already broken out among Republicans between party regulars and independent players—and for that matter between independent players themselves (for example, the Club for Growth versus the U.S. Chamber of Commerce).
Our point here is not to predict how independent groups will behave in years to come, especially inasmuch as they will be doing all kinds of things simultaneously. Nor is our point to characterize their activities as per se positive or negative, or pro-party or anti-party. Our point, rather, is simpler, though we think no less important: the amount of infrastructure being constructed by independent groups to launch candidacies and influence primaries is game-changing. The sheer scope and variety of this activity all but guarantees that the invisible primary will become the province not just of contending parties and their proxies but also, and perhaps more so, of contending groups and their networks.
Politics is a profession which naturally attracts people with demagogic and narcissistic tendencies, a problem with which America’s founding generation had first-hand experience in the person of Aaron Burr. Nothing worried the founders more than how to protect the fledgling democracy from those with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.”18 Their solution was to place the selection of the president and senators in the hands of electors and state legislatures: institutionalists and professionals who would be responsive to popular sentiment but could eliminate contenders with sociopathic tendencies.
Those original safeguards were dismantled long ago, but the party establishments stepped in to take their place, recruiting candidates and clearing their path to office. Even after that system was superseded by binding primary elections, party insiders and political establishmentarians managed to continue vetting candidates behind the scenes. The elected officials and party bigwigs and skeptical donors of the old invisible primary asked candidates hard questions about their ability to run, to win, and—crucially—to govern.
When we asked independent groups how they choose candidates to recruit and support, they mentioned all kinds of characteristics, from political ideology to community service. Only two groups said they vet candidates for ability to compromise and govern.
Now, as we have seen, that arrangement, though not dead, is on life-support. Self-recruited candidates take aim at every office in the country, sometimes storming right past every form of accountability insiders can construct—as the scofflaw judge Roy Moore did recently by demolishing an establishment-backed candidate in an Alabama special-election Senate primary. Today, in the latest development, independent groups are flooding into the pre-primary space. Whether they will, on balance, tend more to screen out or screen in those with “talents for low intrigue” remains to be seen.
We can provide a smidgen of evidence, however. When we asked the independent groups we interviewed how they choose candidates to recruit and support, they mentioned all kinds of characteristics, from political ideology and economic philosophy to age and community service. Only two groups, however, said they vet candidates for ability to compromise and govern. Both were business organizations (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Greater Phoenix Leadership). Our sample is miniscule and our conclusions impressionistic, but we suspect the relative neglect of governing ability as a candidate qualification is no coincidence; unlike the political parties, independent groups are not charged with, or accountable for, organizing the process of governing and building a record of achievement over time. The natural priorities of outside groups point more toward self-interest, self-expression, and ideology. Their overriding goal is to pull the party in their direction by nurturing insurgent candidates who are less likely to have the humbling experience of working in a broad partisan coalition or the willingness to do so.
The proliferation of independent pipelines is already reducing barriers to candidate entry and drawing in more nontraditional candidates, trends which will only increase. Bringing in fresh blood and new energy could undoubtedly be a good thing. But if the price is to multiply the pathways by which unstable or incompetent individuals can make their way onto primary ballots, the political system’s already worrisome vulnerability to intransigence or sociopathy will be increased.
Even in principle, it is impossible to prevent independent groups from moving into the candidate-selection space. Whether the end result leans positive or negative depends quite heavily, we suspect, on whether the political party organizations can maintain enough strength and efficacy to hold their own against the onslaught.
If, as the party professionals we spoke with hope, the party establishments are able to work with and to some extent direct the independent groups, then some new kind of informal but more or less regular candidate vetting might emerge. If, on the other hand, independent groups predominantly play the role of ideological police or anti-establishment spoilers, and if the parties lack the strength to push back, then the result will be more chaos in primary elections and more chaos in government. That appears to be the model getting the upper hand among Republicans. As we write these words, Stephen Bannon, a former Trump White House senior strategist, is traveling the country to recruit and support anti-establishment candidates and has declared a “season of war” against Senate Majority Leader McConnell.
Given the freshness of the developments we explore here, we have no settled recommendations for coping, but we would make two broad points.
First, the party organizations need to find ways to reassert more control over their candidate selection processes—before candidates reach the primary ballot. 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.19 No one method need or should prevail. The important thing is that party regulars and political professionals weigh in and be heard, and that the party be assured a role before the ballot is printed.20
We expect no miracles on this front. Parties have the power to return to smoke-filled rooms tomorrow, if they choose; what they lack is not the legal authority to participate more proactively in candidate vetting but the moral authority and confidence to do so. In a recent study of state parties, we found that the vast majority abjure taking sides in primary contests, justifiably fearing being seen as rigging the process. Some acknowledged quietly jawboning potential candidates by offering advice and realistic appraisals. We concluded:
Acting more like gardeners than gatekeepers, they recruit and advise in ways that gently encourage and assist electable candidates while steering [others] away from losing battles and embarrassments. “We don’t twist arms,” said one Democratic executive director. “But we might say, ‘This is a really tough primary. You’re a great candidate; would you consider running for this other slot?’”21
Given the public’s low esteem for parties and career politicians, we cannot be sure that party leaders would use gatekeeping options, even if they had them. Nor could we guarantee that extremists wouldn’t take over the party infrastructure itself (parties are and should be permeable to forces seeking change).
The proliferation of independent pipelines for candidates adds still greater urgency to what we believe is a crucial task in modern U.S. politics, namely strengthening the political parties as institutions and organizations.
Still, we think that building in one or more forms of party vetting could have several positive effects. One, it might normalize the parties’ taking a proactive role in choosing their nominees. That, in turn, could help acclimate the public to party participation, and it could help party officials feel safe weighing in. Two, even if (as is now the case with Democratic Party “super delegates,” who cast unbound votes at the Democratic National Convention) party elders never used their enhanced role to muscle out a candidate, instituting front-end peer review would require candidates to talk to party elders and take their views on board. From day one of their campaign, and even before, candidates would be cognizant of the need to gather party support and answer hard questions about their readiness and steadiness—processes likely less appealing to individuals with sociopathic tendencies. Three, other things being equal, parties that have front-end leverage in the candidate-development process are in a stronger position to shape the candidate field than are parties that are effectively helpless—which is just about where we are today. Finally, efforts to establish one or more forms of candidate peer-review, whether at the state or federal level or both, would stimulate an overdue public conversation about the role of parties in vetting their own candidates—and might inspire reflection on who will screen out sociopathic and incompetent candidates if parties and professionals cannot.
To those who regard any form of gatekeeping as undemocratic, we would reply that denying a party organization an effective voice in choosing its own nominees is manifestly absurd, and that the result is to dissolve parties into meaninglessness—a state they are perilously close to already. While some may welcome the dissolution of political parties, no other institutions are capable, even in theory, of doing the work that the political scientist James Q. Wilson called “assembling power in the formal government.” Moreover, marginalizing party gatekeepers does not eliminate gatekeeping; it transfers gatekeeping power to independent groups with their own agendas and no accountability to the broader public.
Our second broad point is that the proliferation of independent pipelines for candidates adds still greater urgency to what we believe is a crucial task in modern U.S. politics, namely strengthening the political parties as institutions and organizations. In our previous paper, we showed that state party organizations are struggling to compete against a massive influx of resources from outside groups advantaged by much lighter regulatory burdens. We found that the state parties are staying relevant by capitalizing on specific comparative advantages such as discounted mailing rates and proprietary databases.22 The downside of that specialization strategy is the parties’ relative eclipse in other vital roles—one of which is identifying and vetting candidates. We recommended that, at a minimum, the many obsolete regulations which selectively disadvantage state parties be removed, and that affirmatively helping parties—for example, by making donations to them tax-deductible—should be considered.
If you think politics is already getting weird, just wait until thousands of contending outside groups are in charge of sending our supply of politicians.
Our exposure to independent groups’ rapid expansion into the candidate-development space only redoubles our belief that parties need help to stay competitive. Here again, the point is not which specific measures are chosen to increase the flow of oxygen to the institutional parties, and thereby to reduce the relative advantages of outside groups. The point is to recognize that if parties cannot vet politicians for minimum competence and accountability, no one else reliably will. If, ten years from now, the party establishments have lost what remains of their influence not only over the primary ballot but also the candidate pipeline, there will be, in the words of the political sage George Washington Plunkitt, hell to pay. If you think politics is already getting weird, just wait until thousands of contending outside groups are in charge of sending our supply of politicians.
Finally, a concluding plea. Money is easy to count, and so the inflow of financial resources into politics receives extensive—we would argue excessive—attention from political scientists and reformers. When, say, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich received $20 million in financial support from a casino magnate, or when the Koch network announced it would spend up to $400 million in the 2018 political cycle, that was big news. By comparison, the elbow-grease work of identifying and preparing candidates is inexpensive to conduct and difficult to track, so it is little studied or reported upon or even noticed. Yet we suspect that, in the broad scheme of things, who sends candidates is much more important than who sends money. The change in who sends our politicians is potentially transformative, and it deserves to become a major focus of study and debate. After all, the supply side—the candidate pipeline—is our system’s point of maximum vulnerability to demagoguery and destabilization. As Ehrenhalt said memorably, “Candidates nobody sent can be very appealing; leaders nobody sent can be dangerous.”23
Ehrenhalt’s warning is, if anything, more urgent now than when he wrote it in 1991. A growing consensus in political science finds that voters choose based on their own social and partisan identities, rather than on detailed assessments of candidates’ positions and qualities.24 In today’s hyper-partisan environment, elections are at best very porous sieves for separating wheat from chaff. As competitive general elections have become rarer, the primary is often the last effective screen before a candidate enters office—but primary electorates are often small and unrepresentative, and primary voters often have difficulty even distinguishing the candidates who actually share their preferences. Even when general elections are competitive, voters tend to double down on whomever carries their party’s banner, regardless of how extreme or incompetent that person might be. This increasingly tribal dynamic makes pre-primary quality control more vital than ever. Voters make good choices—when they have good choices to make. Candidates nobody sent, however, turn American elections into crap shoots.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the research assistance of Zack Albert in preparing this report.
Report Produced by Governance Studies
Viewed as a leading, independent voice in the domestic policymaking sphere, the Governance Studies program at Brookings is dedicated to analyzing policy issues, political institutions and processes, and contemporary governance challenges. Our scholarship identifies areas in need of reform and proposes specific solutions to improve governance worldwide, but with a particular emphasis on the United States.
- Transcript of April 12, 1999, interview, accessed at http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people/Mikva/mikva-con2.html
- Jon Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (Random House, 2015), p. 111
- See, e.g., Jamie L. Carson and Jason M. Roberts, Ambition, Competition, and Electoral Reform: The Politics of Congressional Elections Across Time (University of Michigan Press, 2013).
- Alan Ehrenhalt, The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power, and the Pursuit of Power (Random House, 1991), p. 19.
- See, e.g., Raymond J. La Raja, “Why Super PACs: How the American Party System Outgrew the Campaign Finance System,” The Forum 10:4 (2013). By “outside groups” and “independent groups,” we mean groups that do not coordinate with or contribute to candidates, campaigns, or parties. Under existing law, they can make unlimited “independent expenditures” supporting or opposing candidates, and they are subject to comparatively light regulatory oversight. By contrast, traditional political action committees are regulated entities that can donate limited amounts to campaigns and parties and can work in coordination with them. Their activities thus work through rather than around established political infrastructure and are more transparent than those of independent groups.
- Competitive denotes contests in which the nominee wins by 20 points or less.
- Bruce A. Desmarais, Raymond J. La Raja, and Michael S. Kowal, “The Fates of Challengers in U.S. House Elections: The Role of Extended Party Networks in Supporting Candidates and Shaping Electoral Outcomes,” American Journal of Political Science 59 (2014), pp. 194-211. Raymond J. La Raja and Brian F. Schaffner, Campaign Finance and Political Polarization: When Purists Prevail (University of Michigan Press, 2015).
- The analysis relies on a methodology developed by Adam Bonica (2014) that estimates ideal points using campaign finance data to infer the ideological positions of candidates. See Adam Bonica, Database on ideology, money in politics, and elections, public version 2.0 (computer file), Stanford, CA (Stanford University Libraries, https://data.stanford.edu/dime). An advantage of CF-scores over other measures is that they provide ideological scores for non-incumbents. CF-scores, however, may be more accurate at measuring candidate promises or voter perceptions of candidates than actual legislative behavior. The measures also emphasize ideology along a social rather than economic dimension. See Chris Tausanovitch and Christopher Warshaw, “Estimating Candidates’ Political Orientation in a Polarized Congress,” Political Analysis, 25:2 (2017).
- Adam Bonica, Database on ideology, money in politics, and elections, public version 2.0 (computer file). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Libraries. https://data.stanford.edu/dime.
- See, e.g., Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Perspectives on Politics 9 (2011), pp. 25-43.
- See, for example, Carl Hulse, “Leading Republicans Move to Stamp Out Challenges From Right,” New York Times, March 8, 2014.
- See Jonathan Rauch, “Amateurs in the Oval Office,” The Atlantic, November 2015.
- The survey instrument was distributed in October of 2017. While the response rate is low and self-selection bias likely, we received good balance of partisanship and ideology, and a broad range of campaign specialists. Of respondents, 52 percent reported working for Democratic candidates, 35 percent for Republicans, and the remainder chose “other” or “not applicable” and supplied descriptors like “independent,” “nonpartisan,” and “both.” Respondents reported being 28 percent conservative, 32 percent moderate, and 40 percent liberal. The average length of experience working on campaigns is 15 years. A copy of the survey is available here, and summary of responses is available here.
- The question asked: “How would you describe any changes you have observed in how primaries operate in the past 8-10 years (please specify type of race)?”
- Andrew B. Hall, Who Wants to Run? How the Devaluing of Political Office Drives Polarization, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press (cited with author’s permission). Danielle M. Thomsen, Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates (Cambridge University Press, 2017). The Thomsen quotation is from page 6 of her book.
- See, e.g., Jon Grinspan, The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
- Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist 68.
- Another variant would allow party organizations to place an endorsement on the primary ballot itself, allowing voters to consider that information at the polls.
- See Elaine C. Kamarck, Re-Inserting Peer Review in the American Presidential Nomination Process, Brookings, April 2017.
- Raymond J. La Raja and Jonathan Rauch, The State of State Parties—and How Strengthening Them Can Improve Our Politics (Brookings, 2016).
- La Raja and Rauch, 2016, op. cit.
- Op. cit., p. 73.
- See, e.g., Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (Princeton University Press, 2016).