Does Organization Matter? A Critical-Case Analysis from Recent Presidential Nomination Politics

By Trish, Barbara | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 1999 | Go to article overview
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Does Organization Matter? A Critical-Case Analysis from Recent Presidential Nomination Politics


Trish, Barbara, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The significance of presidential nomination politics in the major parties is abundant and obvious as viewed through the lens of practical politics. This is no less than the process by which the parties set the choices to be faced by the electorate in the November election. But analytically, presidential nomination provides a window of opportunity to consider the impact of organization within a contemporary political environment dominated by media and money. For, in fact, caucuses, as mechanisms through which parties conduct delegate selection, lend themselves well to strong organizations and "retail methods" of campaign politics. This quality is underscored with the Iowa precinct caucuses that--for reasons of context and calendar--purportedly reward candidates who excel at organization.

This article examines presidential nomination politics in Iowa on an abstract level approaching the state as a critical case; if traditional organization and retail methods are to matter anywhere, they will matter in this environment. As such, it considers how one might challenge the media-dominated model that now characterizes much of U.S. campaign politics, especially that directed toward the presidency. More concretely, this article explores the 1996 GOP presidential nomination contest in Iowa. It focuses on how candidates use organization to compete, and it assesses the impact of this tool on candidate Success.

Theoretical Context

Iowa caucus politics provides opportunities for significant activist impact on the course of presidential nomination politics. At the same time, it offers an environment marked by disincentives for participation, one in which--at least theoretically--a strong organization will make a difference in the outcome of the caucuses. In this section, I describe a framework to understand activist involvement in politics. The application of this framework to the Iowa caucus setting helps explain why Iowa caucus politics is a critical case.

Given the formal rules that structure presidential nominations, dual tasks face candidates vying for the nomination of one of the two major parties. The first of these is raising funds to finance a campaign and, importantly, to sustain it through the inevitable bumps of the nomination season (Brown, Powell, and Wilcox 1995).(1) The second task, indeed the one to which much of the fundraising effort is directed, is the persuasion and mobilization of the activists; their involvement in primaries and caucuses determines a vast majority of the delegates who will attend the parties' nominating conventions and who will ultimately nominate the presidential candidate. I focus on this second task, the candidates' efforts to persuade and mobilize in the caucus setting, and use a theoretical framework to structure expectations about the role of strong organizations.

The job of the candidate in caucus politics is to mobilize his supporters to the caucuses, which are used in a handful of states for presidential delegate selection. There are a variety of activities undertaken at the Iowa precinct caucuses, including the initial stages of delegate selection and, at Republican caucuses in most years, a straw poll measuring preference of the caucus attendees for the party's nomination candidates. Additional activities deal more directly with party organizational business and include consideration of platform planks and selection of party officials. In short, much significant work is accomplished at these meetings. Yet, it remains that for activists, incentives for nonparticipation are high.

There are two strong dynamics in a caucus setting that work against participation among party activists and others who are generally interested in presidential nomination politics. The first involves the high cost of participation. Attending a caucus, as opposed to "merely" voting in a primary, means that the individual commits to a meeting at a narrowly specified time.

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