Today, the authors of The Party Decides will be discussing how the 2012 Republican nomination looks in light of that book. Check us out at Did The Party Decide?, hosted by the University of Denver. The panel will be live-streamed at 2 p.m. Mountain time (4 p.m. Eastern).
Here's a preview of my thoughts:
The argument of our book is that party leaders can and do put a thumb on the scale for their favorite candidate. More importantly, that favorite candidate is a particular kind of candidate. He is someone who can win in November. But he's also someone who is broadly acceptable within the party. Maybe nobody's first choice, but at least acceptable to most of the important groups within the party. Maybe one or two small groups could be dissatisfied, but the major groups have to at least acquiesce.
This notion is old. Abraham Lincoln articulated it when arguing for his virtues as a candidate, in a letter to supporters:
My name is new in the field; and I suppose I am not the FIRST choice of a very great many. Our policy then, is to give no offense to others—leaving them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love. This, too, is dealing justly with all, and leaving us in a mood to support heartily whoever shall be nominated. . . . Whatever you may do for me, consistently with these suggestions, will be appreciated, and gratefully remembered. Please write me again.
(signed) A. Lincoln
So factional candidates -- candidates who appeal to just one group -- are unlikely to prevail, because a winner needs broad support from across the party. But candidates who do not appeal to the largest groups in the party also have trouble.
And this became an issue for the Republican Party. Why? Because over the past few decades, one "faction" within the Republican Party has become increasingly large. The movement conservatives are not just a wing of the party. They are the core. They're not really a faction anymore. They won out against the Eisenhower or Rockefeller Republicans. What's more, conservatism unites a lot of different issues. The party is not a party that unites Wall Street with religious traditionalists. They are both conservatives, and for the most part, those groups (and many others) agree on a lot of things. That doesn't have to be a problem. It just means that movement conservatives (who include the Tea Party, but they've been around for much longer) have to sign off on the candidate. They are such a large group that they can't be ignored.
But, in 2012, for a variety of reasons, especially those outlined by Seth on Tuesday, the Republicans didn't really have a candidate who excited the conservative movement. Romney isn't bad for conservatives, but they really thought they could do better. Which is why you had wave after wave of a new conservative being the "front-runner" (all while Romney remained the real front-runner, in party support and later delegates). They were auditioning a conservative who would appeal to this very central element of the party.
In short, what we saw in action was ideology. We've been talking a lot about polarization and ideology on MOF. What the 2012 election shows is that it is incomplete to frame this as ideology vs. party. The party is ideological. What they want is ideological. The party is practical about winning. But they don't just want a Republican to win. They want the right Republican to win. An ideologically conservative president. A Tea Party style conservative. After the heady days of midterm success in 2010, Republicans thought they could nominate such a person. Take away the important role ideology plays in shaping the party's agenda, and it's hard to understand the 2012 nomination cycle.