The Basic Dynamics of the Presidential Nomination Process: Putting the 2000 Races in Perspective
Mayer, William G., Presidential Studies Quarterly
How did George W. Bush and Al Gore come to win the 2000 presidential nominations of America's two major political parties? Of all the dozens or even hundreds of persons who might plausibly have aspired to serve as the nation's forty-third president, how was it that the choice was effectively narrowed down to these two individuals? The thesis of this article is that at least during the nomination phase of the campaign, the 2000 election was pretty much business as usual. Over the past two decades, the presidential nomination process, once widely thought of as an almost uniquely turbulent and unpredictable enterprise, has in fact usually operated in a quite regular and predictable fashion. And while every election has its new wrinkles and novel situations, most of what transpired during the 2000 nomination contests has clear and obvious parallels in the races that preceded them.
The analysis in this article thus proceeds along two tracks. In the first place, I attempt to describe and document some of the basic dynamics of the contemporary nomination process. In particular, I focus on the issue of how it is that the process finally settles on a candidate: how and why it is that one candidate rather than another finally wins the nomination. With that as background, I then examine the particular circumstances of 2000, showing how much of that election was simply the latest remake of a quite familiar plotline but also highlighting those aspects of the 2000 campaign that genuinely were exceptional.
An Initial Model
The starting point for this analysis is a nomination forecasting model that I first developed almost ten years ago. (1) Though presidential nomination races often seemed to be chaotic and unpredictable, there were, I argued, two indicators, both available before any of the primaries and caucuses had taken place, that correctly predicted which candidate would win his party's presidential nomination in six of the past seven contested nomination races. (2)
The first of these indicators was the candidates' relative standing in polls of the national party electorate. Well before any of the national convention delegates are actually selected-in fact, quite soon after the conclusion of the previous presidential election-pollsters regularly ask national samples of Democrats and Republicans whom they would like to see nominated as their parties' candidate for president. As shown in Table 1, if one focuses on the last poll taken before the start of delegate selection activities--meaning, in most years, the last poll before the Iowa caucuses--the candidate leading in that poll went on to win the nomination in six of the seven contested nomination races held between 1980 and 1992.
The second indicator was the candidates' relative success in raising money. Under the campaign finance laws enacted in 1974, every active presidential candidate is required to make periodic reports to the Federal Election Commission indicating how much money he or she has raised and spent for the campaign. As is also shown in Table 1, the leading money raiser during the preprimary campaign--more precisely, the candidate who had raised the largest amount of money by December 31 of the year before the election--went on to win the nomination in six of seven cases.
Since that article was published, the country has seen three contested presidential nomination races, and both indicators worked perfectly in every case. The relevant data for the 2000 election are shown in Table 2. On the Democratic side, Al Gore had a large lead over Bill Bradley in the polls; Gore was also his party's leading preelection year fund-raiser, though by a surprisingly narrow margin.
As for George Bush, to say that he was the Republican front-runner in 2000 is a distinct understatement. In fact, Bush had perhaps the most successful invisible primary season in the modern history of presidential elections. The most publicized measure of his success was his fund-raising. During 1999, the Bush campaign took in more than $67,000,000 in contributions. As shown in Table 3, even after adjusting for inflation, this is more than double the amount raised by any other presidential candidate since the Federal Election Commission began keeping records. Equally impressive, however, was Bush's performance in the public opinion polls. Through the final six months of 1999, Bush was supported, on average, by 63 percent of the country's Republican identifiers, as compared to just 13 percent for his nearest competitor (originally Elizabeth Dole; after her withdrawal, John McCain). As the data in the second half of Table 3 indicate, except for Bush's father in 1992, who was the incumbent president and faced fairly weak opposition, no other presidential aspirant of the past two decades has come close to achieving that level of dominance over the rest of the field.
To put these results in a more mathematically tractable form, and to allow for easier comparison with work on general election forecasting, I then combined these two indicators into a regression model that generates a numerical prediction of