Will Scott Walker succeed in building up an independent political base and circumventing the invisible primary? Probably not. Will he try to do that anyway? I don’t know, but there are several reasons why it’s plausible to think this might look like a good strategy for a candidate in Walker’s position.

In a story about Walker’s choice to start a non-PAC 527, the New York Times’ John Guida quotes me saying, essentially, that Walker’s strategy might be to try to circumvent the invisible primary. Seth Masket and Jonathan Bernstein have written about why this understanding of 527s is incorrect. I’m not disputing that Masket’s main claim, which is that the party pervades the fundraising process (he has certainly done more research about this than I have). Nor do I think Bernstein is wrong that there’s no establishment candidate to go around yet. However, I do think that it’s a mistake to neglect the fact that parties don’t have complete control over the candidates who pursue the nomination under their labels.

Nomination is coordination

Ignoring the fact that ambitious candidates will try to get around the invisible primary process also ignores the reason why the informal process exists. The system of party nominations emerged in the first place in order to address the coordination problem created by multiple candidates pursuing the presidency at once. After the disastrous election of 1824, in which four Democratic-Republican candidates competed and landed the election in the hands of the House of Representatives, state party groups started coordinating. (Martin Van Buren was the architect of this, and it ultimately resulted in the first major party conventions in 1832).

The Party Decides describes a similarly messy, vertiginous process in 1972, after the new McGovern-Fraser rules were put in place, but before elites had adapted with a new set of informal rules. These informal rules actually coordinate across multiple forces and institutional logics, including the reality of multiple ambitious candidates whose interest in seeking the nomination may outstrip, or at least compete with, their dedication to individual party goals.

A base of one’s own

Scholars who have written about the period between 1880 and 1920, including Daniel Klinghard and Sidney Milkis, identify an important change that occurred as the patronage system was dismantled and the means for travel and communication improved: presidents and presidential candidates began building their own bases of political support. This process – laid out well in this article by Klinghard (paywall) involved presidents communicating directly with the electorate and developing their own bases of support. Yet, this process was hardly completely removed from party. Presidential candidates still relied on party messaging, labor, and funding to fuel their campaigns, but they began to invert the relationship that had existed. Presidents and aspirants were shaping the policy positions and political directions of their parties, instead of the other way around.

Two pieces of recent history are relevant to the fact that Walker – or any number of other candidates – might try to think about how to cultivate an independent support base. Again, here, what’s meant by independent is a little tricky. I don’t mean something totally distinct from the interests, ideas, and policy commitments that make up the Republican Party – I mean establishing a national political identity as that’s not totally dependent on endorsements or status among formal party insiders.

Obama did a pretty strong job of this leading up to the 2008 primaries. Did Obama’s fundraising and voter outreach efforts challenge the basic ideas and priorities of the Democratic Party? Absolutely not. Were they even substantively that different from anything Hillary Clinton said or did? No, not that either. Nevertheless, the Obama team built a distinct constituency for him, mostly within, though not completely identical to, the party’s primary electorate. It’s not crazy to imagine that other candidates might think about mobilizing resources to do something similar.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Republican establishment strategy has been a losing one in the last two presidential elections. The candidates may have nothing to do with the result – indeed, that is likely true. But not everyone knows about or adheres to the forecasting school of thought. Potential Republican candidates may wish to appear like they are going around the party establishment, appealing directly to primary voters, and channeling “pure” conservative viewpoints in the interest of avoiding the “unpopular with the base” narrative that dogged both McCain and Romney.

Two Republican parties?

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the possibility that there are actually two processes going on within the Republican Party right now. Upon further reflection, I’m increasingly convinced of the plausibility of this hypothesis. If this is true, one set of candidates will be responsive to the kinds of pressures exerted by the invisible primary and by the formal party leaders who seem to prefer to coordinate around a nominee early on in the process. The other set of candidates is more ideologically motivated (and perhaps also motivated by personal interests like book deals and speaking engagements), and less likely to respond to central pressures. Is Walker likely to join the latter group (assuming the overall idea is correct)? This also remains to be seen. An ambitious politician who thinks he might be able to build a following as a “base” favorite might choose to remain in the race even if some party elites favor a more established opponent.

It’s important to note that the factions within the Republican Party are, on many policy issues, distinctions without differences. The big differences seem to be on process and priority, not on issue stances. This makes it difficult to determine exactly what constitutes establishment vs. outsider when it comes to candidates, groups, and positions. An ambitious and clever presidential aspirant can use this ambiguity to his (or her) advantage.

What does it all mean?

If I’m right about the different institutional logics at work simultaneously in the Republican Party, it’s hard to imagine this situation being sustainable – despite the issue similarities between the two groups. If policy demanders and other elites continue to nominate candidates who are perceived as “unpopular” with the base, it seems like a situation ripe for institutional change – especially since the nomination process is so informal. Based on this, and observations about recent elections, I’m keeping an eye out for the ways Republican candidates might challenge existing practices.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

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Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.