Has the Republican Presidential Nominating System Changed Since 2008?

In the cover article of Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Jim Rutenberg asks, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ben Carson?” To get a sense of what the article is driving at, it’s helpful to skip to the very end, where we read this:

I spotted Newt Gingrich, himself a fleeting presidential front-runner during those strange primary days of 2012. I asked him whether he thought all the party maneuvering — all the attempts to change the rules and fast-track the process — would preclude someone from presenting the sort of outside primary challenge he had carried out in the last election.

“No,” he told me, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Look at where Ben Carson is right now.”

Um, where is Ben Carson right now? Okay, granted, he’s got a reasonably positive profile story in the NYT magazine, but that’s hardly the fast track to the Republican presidential nomination. He’s certainly not the poll leader (even thought that isn’t great indication of nomination prospects this far out anyway), and it’s not like he’s amassed an intimidating warchest or garnered fantastic endorsements from party insiders. Some early staff he hired came from the 2012 campaigns of Michelle Bachmann and Newt Gingrich — hardly evidence of insider approval. And even though he may have an admirable personal story, most of what people know about him revolves around his tendency to say truly outlandish things, such as comparing Obamacare to slavery or suggesting gay marriage will lead to bestiality.

But the article really pivots on this description of Republican presidential nomination politics:

A candidacy like Carson’s presents a new kind of problem to the establishment wing of the G.O.P., which, at least since 1980, has selected its presidential nominees with a routine efficiency that Democrats could only envy. The establishment candidate has usually been a current or former governor or senator, blandly Protestant, hailing from the moderate, big-business wing of the party (or at least friendly with it) and almost always a second-, third- or fourth-time national contender — someone who had waited “his turn.” These candidates would tack predictably to the right during the primaries to satisfy the evangelicals, deficit hawks, libertarian leaners and other inconvenient but vital constituents who made up the “base” of the party. In return, the base would, after a brief flirtation with some fantasy candidate like Steve Forbes or Pat Buchanan, “hold their noses” and deliver their votes come November.

I could certainly quibble with parts of that description, but basically, yeah, the party tends to nominate a certain type of candidate — a current or recent senator or governor who is broadly acceptable to various factions within the party. The real question is whether that dynamic has changed. The article suggests that this system has been undermined since 2008, given the rise of the Tea Party, changes in media and fundraising practices, and various nomination and delegate selection rules changes. Has it? That is, has the increased factionalization with the Republican Party, combined with the ability of candidate to go around traditional partisan sources to get their message out to voters and raise funds, made it easier for non-traditional candidates like Carson to win the nomination?

We basically have one presidential election — 2012 — to draw on as evidence. And that evidence largely suggests that the system hasn’t changed much. Yes, it was a noisier nomination cycle than most, with nearly every candidate serving as the front-runner for at least a few days, and lots of entertaining debates to give long-shot candidates some air time. And non-traditional funding sources allowed some candidates to keep campaigning long after they would have run out of cash in an earlier cycle.

Nonetheless, the outcome of that nomination contest was entirely predictable from very early on. Romney had a lot of major party endorsements locked down early in the cycle, Perry could have threatened that but fizzled in public appearances, and no one else really came close to undermining Romney’s support among party insiders. Changes in the nomination system generated a lot of noise but ultimately didn’t change the outcome.

What other evidence do we have? Well, Democrats are operating in the same political environment. If recent changes have made it easier for long-shot candidates to do well, we might see more of them running for president. Instead, the opposite has occurred — Hillary Clinton has sown up the nomination earlier and more overwhelmingly than any other non-incumbent in modern presidential history.

It’s certainly possible that the post-1968 presidential nomination system has finally shifted to something new. But what evidence we have suggests that it hasn’t, at least not yet. Ben Carson is following the path of Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich, and there’s little reason to expect he won’t wind up at the same destination.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.