Judge a Party by Whom it Nominates, Not by Who Seeks its Nomination

Some journalists and activists have been quick to blame the Republican Party for the recent rise of Donald Trump in politics. Richard Zombeck calls him “the perfect spokesman for the GOP.” Simon Maloy claims that Trump has continued to draw attention precisely because (at least until very recently) no prominent Republicans have had the courage to criticize him. Heather Cox Richardson goes further, saying Trump is the logical culmination of a strategy Richard Nixon put into play half a century ago:

How did America get to such a place that someone like Donald Trump can command a lead in the Republican primaries? Trump is the product of a deliberate Republican strategy, adopted by Richard Nixon’s people in 1968, to attract voters with an apocalyptic redemption story rather than reasoned argument. It has taken almost 50 years, but we have finally arrived at the culmination of postmodern politics in which Republican leaders use words to create their own reality.

One can certainly see the logic to all of this, and it’s tempting to tarnish a party by associating it with the worst person running for its nomination. But this is neither fair nor accurate, for two key reasons.

First, parties are porous. You do not need a party’s permission to run for office. You do not need Reince Priebus’ signature to call yourself a Republican. Anyone is free to run for office, to donate to a candidate or party, to register with a party or de-register from it, etc. Sure, there are political constraints; someone who was a Democrat a few years ago might be considered suspect if he seeks office as a Republican today. But there’s nothing the party can really do to keep you from trying.

Second, parties are ultimately gatekeepers. Through their manipulation of funding, endorsements, and other resources, party leaders can determine who wins primaries and caucuses, and ultimately who gets their nomination.

These two claims may seem somewhat contradictory. How can a porous party that theoretically lets anyone in also be a kingmaker? That’s a reflection of the unusual and informal nature of American political parties. Unlike many democracies, we don’t have many specific rules on who gets to appear on a ballot. It’s really quite open. But party networks choose who prevails.

This is relevant for the Trump situation. He only announced his candidacy about a month ago. It was obvious from the beginning he wouldn’t get the nomination; the question was how the party would shut him down. Remember, anyone can run. Kanye West and Suzanne Somers could announce they’re forming a dream Democratic ticket tomorrow, and no one in that party could prevent them from trying. No doubt a Fox News commentator would describe them as the perfect spokespeople for the Democratic Party. But they wouldn’t win, and that’s to that party’s credit.

At some point, possibly quite soon, Trump will suspend his campaign, and the GOP will have had something to do with that (although not quite as much as Trump’s own mouth.) It would be nice if those currently criticizing the GOP for Trump’s candidacy will praise that party when he withdraws, but I rather doubt that will happen.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

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