Book Review: The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform

The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform is a book by political scientists Marty Cohen, David Carol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. The Party Decides lays out the theoretical and evidential basis for the idea that the Democratic and Republican Parties still largely control their respective nominations for Presidential candidates. This argument is heavily caveated by the authors because of a lack of evidence, qualitative or quantitative, that sheds light on this issue. Most of their qualitative evidence comes from national media outlets such as the New York Times or Newsweek and from state based papers such as the Des Moines Register in Iowa and other state media outlets.

The main thrust of Cohen and company’s argument is that the Democratic and Republican Parties maintain control of the nomination process during the invisible primary. The invisible primary is the time before the first caucuses and primaries start in a Presidential election year. Cohen et al. argue that different party factions such as labor unions and civil rights for the Democratic Party and social and economic conservatives in Republican Party use the invisible primary as a time to coordinate on which candidate they support as the nominee. These differing factions coordinate this by the way this dole out endorsements to the various candidates. Usually the candidate that can get a majority of the endorsements of party leaders and elites is the nominee.

In order to provide evidence that this is how the process has worked historically and works presently, Cohen et al. provide a rough sketch of how they believe political parties in the United States emerged throughout history. They link the emergence of political parties to the hard work and determination of grassroots activists such as those who formed the Democratic-Republicans that got Thomas Jefferson elected in 1800, the emergence of the Jacksonian Democrats in the 1820s due in large part to the work of Martin Van Buren coordinating grassroots activity between Northern and Southern Democrats. Finally the emergence of the anti-slavery Republican Party in the 1850s due to grassroots activity by activists in Ohio.

While explaining their theory of party emergence, Cohen et al. also provide reasons why they think other theories do not work. The first theory they deal with is the idea of the long coalition being formed by politicians in order to keep office. They demonstrate that long coalitions were hard to form and never stayed together very long. Cohen et al. use Alexander Hamilton’s time as Secretary of the Treasury to demonstrate the impracticality of this arrangement. Hamilton had to form a new coalition every time he had to get a piece of legislation through Congress. Cohen et al. also dismisses the theory that parties were formed by ambitious politicians trying to maintain a hold on their office. This came from the snippets of newspapers and other records demonstrating that those currently holding public office were usually standoffish when new parties were forming and only changed tune when those new parties were getting candidates elected.

By the time Cohen et al. get to the reform period and beyond, they have already painted the picture that the traditional convention style nomination process had largely disappeared and had been replaced by the invisible primary. They make this argument based upon the decrease in the number of ballots it took to get a certain candidate nominated. By the reform period this had decreased to 1 or 2 ballots and dark horse candidates had largely disappeared. Cohen et al. once again use snippets from memoirs and journalistic records to demonstrate that candidates for nomination spent significant amounts of time talking to national, state, and local party leaders and elites in order to seduce in to voting for them at the convention. The candidates most successful at this process usually won the nomination and very rarely had to compete in the primaries.

Cohen et al. argue that post reform that the party leaders and elites had to change track and use the invisible primary as their primary means of communicating to other party leaders and elites as well as the rank and file who was an acceptable candidate. Cohen et al. use what statistical evidence they could muster to demonstrate that the candidate who garnered a majority of the important endorsements usually went on to win nomination and stood a strong chance in the general election. Those who didn’t but went on to the general election usually failed. Cohen et al. caveat this argument by highlighting the immediate elections following reform and the 2004 Democratic Primary. They also caveat it by highlighting that the data is weak or not present because most of the action takes place out of sight.

In conclusion, Cohen et al. make a strong claim that parties still largely control their nomination processes, just in a different way than most people recognize. While the data are weak, it does demonstrate that parties may still have a firm control over this process. If there is worth to the argument Cohen et al. make it is that political environment can be changed and it has in past with huge disruptions for the parties and society at large. This is definitely a book that anyone interested in politics and political science should read because it provides insight into how certain candidates get nominated and others are sidelined.


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