Rick Perry’s decision to drop out last week shows how presidential nomination cycles really work.
The big news in the race to see who will be the GOP’s nominee for president last week had to be Rick Perry’s decision to suspend his campaign. To be sure the Former Texas governor’s decision to throw in the towel doesn’t tell us a whole lot about who will ultimately be the GOP nominee this cycle, well other than that it’s not going to be him. But what it does do is help illustrate how the presidential nomination process actually works.
Much of the political media like to portray the race for a party’s nomination for the White House as a sort of foot race, with candidates racing each other in the opinion polls to the big finish. This makes for exciting media coverage of races, but unfortunately for journalists it’s just not how the process actually works.
The reality is that early polling just isn’t very predictive of who ends up winning the nomination in the end. As political scientist Matt Dickson pointed out recently:
On September 13, 2011, only a month after he formally declared his candidacy, Perry had rocketed to the top of the Republican field with close to 32 percent support—almost exactly where Donald Trump sits in national polls today. Headlines from that period proclaimed that Perry was “surging ahead of the Republican pack,” thus forcing Mitt Romney—the purported front-runner prior to Perry’s entrance—to reconsider his campaign strategy. And today? If media reports are to be believed, Jeb Bush, the party front-runner before Trump’s entrance, is seeking a new strategy to deal with his upstart rival.
The reasons for this are pretty simple. Very few actual primary voters and caucus goers are paying attention to the race right now, meaning candidates can surge up and down through out the months leading up to Iowa. And this tendency goes back a pretty long way. It’s hard to remember now but in the fall of 1979 Ted Kennedy was beating then President Jimmy Carter two to one in national opinion polls for who would be the next Democratic nominee.
In other words just because a voter in New Hampshire tells you they are going to vote for Donald Trump four months before the primary doesn’t necessarily mean they will. They might just be giving you the name of the person they saw on last night’s news.
Instead the nominations process is much more of a long drawn out battle of attrition, not unlike a poker tournament. A lot of people enter the contest and one by one they drop out until only one candidate remains. Nobody is forced to drop out (there is no casino security to throw you out the door once your run out of cash in today’s political parties) but as candidates determine they no longer have a chance of winning they quit. Which causes their resources in the form of activists, staff, donors, and endorsees to be reallocated which in turn causes all the other candidates to reevaluate their position to determine if it makes sense to keep going or throw in the towel.
In fact Perry isn’t really the first candidate to be “winnowed” out of the field for the Republicans this cycle. As Jonathan Bernstein pointed out recently:
There was significant winnowing before the announcement stage in 2016: Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, Rob Portman, Bob Ehrlich and John Bolton all did candidate-like things for a while and then dropped out.
All of this is another way of saying that if you want to know who will be the next nominees feel free to ignore the opinion polls until after Thanksgiving, and focus instead on things like endorsements from office holders and especially former candidates.
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Photo Mary Altaffer/AP