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How political parties 'clear the field' in primaries

- December 10, 2014

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks at an event hosted by the Iowa GOP in Des Moines on Aug. 6. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
When speaking about the effect of the extended primary season at Harvard’s Institute of Politics in 2012, Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney’s campaign manager, was asked whether the extended primary hurt the eventual nominee. Rhoades replied unequivocally, “Yes.”
As such, recent reports suggesting that a small group of elite GOP donors are working behind the scenes to clear the field for a preferred candidate should come as no surprise. The bigger question is whether these efforts will be successful. Can political elites clear the field for a preferred candidate?
Recent new theories of political parties argue that party elites help preferred candidates win the nomination. Most notably, in The Party Decides, Marty Cohen and colleagues found that the candidate backed by the most party leaders is likely to win the presidential primary, a finding that held up again in 2012. But clearing the field is a different question altogether. Can parties essentially limit the field of candidates presented to primary voters?
My research suggests that they do.
I focused on Senate elections, compiling a list of every candidate who declared his or her candidacy for U.S. Senate and filed paperwork to form a committee with the Federal Elections Commission during the 2004-2014 election cycles. If a candidate withdrew before the primary, I noted the date the candidate dropped out of the race. To measure each candidate’s support within the party, I counted the number of donors each candidate shared with his or her party’s Senatorial Campaign Committee. These donors are more likely to be well established in the party network.
I found that party elites do shape the field of Senate candidates by ignoring candidates they would rather not run at all.  When candidates receive less support from the donors who contribute to the Senatorial Campaign Committee, they are more likely to drop out of the race.
This is because candidates who do not receive party support quickly realize that they will lack the resources needed to campaign. As one staffer explained to me, “If they do run, they run inept campaigns. The smart campaign people get behind the party’s candidate and there’s no one left for the candidate that wants to challenge the party’s candidate.” Without party support, candidates find it hard to raise money or recruit competent staff to their campaigns.
It is important to note that party support did not merely going to the candidate with the most fundraising prowess. While current party support predicted future fundraising, current fundraising did not affect current party support.
Instead, based on interviews with party leaders, donors, staffers, and candidates, I found that elites care about whether a candidate can win the general election. As one Republican party official explained, “Higher up the [political] food chain, there’s less idealism. It’s more about winning. Not to say that there’s not idealism, but it becomes pragmatic idealism.”
At the same time, political party elites are also interested in maximizing the number of seats. As one party staffer in charge of recruitment explained “You don’t want two good candidates running in one race and a crappy candidate running in another especially when you’ve got a good political environment on your side.”
This isn’t to say that party coordination is easy. As one former Democratic party chair explained to me, “It’s more shifting coalitions, rather than a center, command and control type of model. As chair, I remember walking around often saying ‘Where’s the back room? Where’s the room where I get to go smoke cigars and make all the decisions, because I haven’t found the door.’”
Will a small group of elite GOP donors clear the 2016 presidential field for a particular candidate, whoever that may be?  That remains to be seen.  But it is clear that parties do have the ability to do so if they can agree on such a candidate.
Hans Hassell is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Cornell College.