One more important point about presidential nominations.

To say that “the party decides” doesn’t necessarily mean that it will choose another Mitt Romney, John McCain or Bob Dole over more conservative options. It just means that party actors — politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party organization officials and staff, activists and donors, party-aligned interest groups and media – will be making the decision. Not (for the most part at least) rank-and-file voters in the caucuses and primaries and not the (“neutral”) media. Nor is the nomination the random result of a convoluted process (as it probably was to a large extent in the immediate aftermath of reform, most notably in 1976 on the Democratic side).

Party actors may disagree over all sorts of issues. The nomination process is how they resolve those differences, either by reaching agreements or, sometimes, by fighting it out.

We hear a lot about a Republican “establishment,” and we’ve been hearing about a “donor class.” I don’t know what those are. The shorthand doesn’t describe real groups within the party. It’s more helpful to think about policy preferences and interests. For example, there is a split on immigration, and we can track how different groups line up. We also can think about groups and their priorities: Christian conservatives, a large group within the Republican Party, care most about abortion and a few other social issues, and their size and strength give them a veto in those areas, but not in others.

Another important split in parties is between those who care primarily about winning, and those who have other principal motivations. Typically, politicians, campaign and governing professionals, and formal party officials and staff, tend to focus on winning above all. Activists and party-aligned interest groups may have other priorities. One of the things ailing the Republican Party is that for many party actors the conservative marketplace warps that traditional split by separating financial incentives from victory in elections .

This isn’t to say that the people who support the more moderate candidate will always win. Those with other priorities are “party,” too. They might prevail, perhaps at the cost of the more ideologically extreme candidate agreeing to run on less extreme platform. And it’s not as if we’re looking at huge policy differences between, say, Chris Christie on one side, and Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee on the other. Even “Tail Gunner” Ted Cruz isn’t ideologically very different from mainstream conservatives. That’s not his trouble.

Rand Paul is the only otherwise viable candidate who really is different. He isn’t going to win, at least not unless the party changes radically. But the rest? It depends on the outcome of a process of coordination and competition within the party. That process includes the party actors’ decision whether to coalesce around the most conservative candidate who has a chance of winning in November or the conservative candidate with the best chance of winning.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.