Given that March Madness will be starting soon, it’s time to erase another presidential nomination process myth that seems to be picking up steam. Let’s call it the “brackets” myth: the idea that nominations are structured sort of like the National Collegiate Athletic Association hoops tournament. For example, this from Chris Cillizza:
To hear Republicans who follow these sorts of things closely, there are actually two primaries for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The first is the fight to be the establishment conservative pick…The other is to be the movement conservative choice…The theory is that a victor will emerge from each of these sub-primaries and those two winners will duke it out for the nomination.
To be sure: to the extent that Cillizza is telling us what Republican party actors say, that’s just good reporting. But to the extent they (or he) believe what they're saying, it isn't helpful.
It’s not wrong to think of presidential nomination politics as an elimination contest, in which candidates are winnowed out until only the winner is left standing.
In practice, however, winnowing isn’t totally cut-and-dried, in the way that NCAA basketball is. Candidates can be winnowed out but remain in the game, contesting primaries all the way to the bitter end despite having lost any realistic hope well before the Iowa caucuses. Some of those who do drop out see the handwriting on the wall early; others press on until the realization that they can't win is shoved in their faces.
It is true that different candidates compete for different sets of resources early in the process, and for different voter groups once they get to the primaries and caucuses. But that process isn't t isolated from the rest of the party, the way that the brackets metaphor implies. Party actors are simultaneously choosing the candidate (or candidates) they want to support from among those who are relatively close to them in whatever ways that matter to them, and also choosing whether they would attempt to exercise a veto on candidates farther away from them.
For example, those who are focused primarily on abortion may be choosing their favorite among candidates who similarly focus on social issues, but they are at the same time reviewing the credentials of all the other candidates, and will turn sharply against anyone they find wanting. And because parties are coalitions, other groups will take that into account when making their own choices. Neocons, for example, might choose to back off from a pro-abortion rights, national security hawk in favor of a anti-abortion candidate who is slightly less than ideal on their issues because they know they have to work with Christian conservatives.
Put it all together, and we see that nominations are often wrapped up before Iowa, even if there’s still a lot of excitement later (John McCain beat George W. Bush in 2000 in New Hampshire! Rick Santorum won Colorado and Minnesota in 2012!). Or party actors, uncertain about one or more candidate, use the early voting events as evidence of how those candidates will perform with voters (Is Rick Perry really dead? Iowa 2012 says…Yup. Is Howard Dean more than we thought he was? Iowa 2004 says: “Byaaaaah!”).
None of this lends credence to the brackets myth. Again: it is true that some candidates are directly competing for the same resources. But that doesn’t mean that the winner of that battle advances to compete against the winner of some other battle. The contest just isn’t structured that way.
A bit of a broader point: We need to get away from the idea of elections (all elections, really, but let’s stick with presidential nomination contests for now) as races with, ideally, a fixed starting line that all contestants stand at, waiting for the gun to go off. That’s not what we have here. Perry didn’t enter the 2012 battle at the same starting line as Michele Bachmann. It would have taken more than a few unexpected successes for Bachmann to really become a plausible nominee, and it took more than a few spectacular flops for Perry to throw away any realistic hope of winning.
In other words: it’s nothing like March Madness, in which if a 16 seed beats a 1, that’s the end of the story. Santorum can win Iowa 2012, but it doesn’t knock out Mitt Romney. George H.W. Bush can finish third in Iowa 1988, but still win the nomination pretty easily: It didn’t become a contest between winner Bob Dole and second-place finisher Pat Robertson.
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