Changes in How the Party Decides

Nate Cohn has now seen enough. The big fundraising numbers being posted by proto- and actual candidates for president, and the projections many have made of really astonishing goals for Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, have convinced Nate that the settled opinion of political scientists and the pundits they influence about the role of party elites in nominating presidents needs to be unsettled by changes in the money landscape.

Six months ago, I would have told you that April 15, the date when campaigns report their first-quarter fund-raising tallies, could be one of the most interesting early milestones of the Republican primary season.

I think I even told my boss, admittedly with hyperbole, that the Q1 report of a year preceding a presidential election was the most important fund-raising report in American politics….

But this year, April 15 has come and gone without much news at all.

Rather than exploratory committees and campaigns, top Republican candidates like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker have started super PACs and other groups allowing them to solicit unlimited contributions. None will have to file disclosure forms with the Federal Election Commission until July.

The uneventful passing of April 15 is only the most subtle indication of the way super PACs are transforming the presidential nominating process. They have given candidates the ability to raise colossal sums from small but wealthy bases of support. Along with Internet fund-raising, super PACs are helping to form an alternative campaign finance model that is eroding party control over the primary process. Which types of candidates will benefit remains to be seen.

You should read the whole thing, but Nate is pointing out that a lot of the assumptions about the power of elites–understood not as just the wealthiest contributors, but as a network of donors, elected officials, and well-established interest groups–involve their role as gatekeeper to the kind of scratch needed to run a viable presidential campaign. Now if candidates have the kind of celebrity (even if it’s negative celebrity from the POV of elites) that brings in small dollars on the internet, or have cultivated relationships with a few very rich people, they can walk right around those gates. Ted Cruz, loathed in party elite circles as a selfish, trouble-making parvenu, is a perfect example.

There is no precedent for the fund-raising success of Mr. Cruz, a candidate with virtually no support from party elites. My colleague Nicholas Confessore wrote that “the size of the contributions is likely to force backers of other candidates to rethink their budgets for the primary season,” and one can only wonder what the effect might be in another four years.

Yeah, the mind does reel. But it’s all the more reason to wonder if the kind of controlled process described in the enormously influential 2008 book The Party Decides is a bit out of date already.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.