The past two election cycles have ushered in a more empirically grounded style of political analysis. A new generation of data-minded analysts now compete with the old-school pundits who predict election results based on what their gut tell them about a race, or deduce voter trends based from remarks they overheard in a bar in Iowa or a cab in Chicago. And this new, more empirical approach has brought some key insights from political science into the national conversation.
So far, the 2016 cycle has left the pundits flummoxed. It’s a running theme that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz’s presence at the top of the Republican ticket defies easy explanation. They’ve been similarly hard-pressed to explain how a 74-year-old Brooklyn Jew who identifies himself as a democratic socialist is giving a candidate with as much establishment support as Hillary Clinton a real challenge. But what about the political scientists? Have they been equally surprised at the way the 2016 race has played out?
Last week, I invited David Karol, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, onto my show, Politics and Reality Radio, to get his take. Karol co-authored The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform, an influential book that argues that, while the two major parties ended the days of deals cut in smoke-filled rooms when they adopted a transparent primary process in the 1970s, “party actors” still hold an enormous amount of influence over the nomination process. Rather than analyzing how candidates woo voters, Karol and his colleagues looked at how party activists vet candidates during an “invisible primary,” long before most people start tuning into a race, and then help shape primary voters’ views of those vying to lead their party.
Donald Trump’s commanding lead in the GOP contest seems to undercut their thesis, and Karol was quick to acknowledge that, “in real time, there’s certainly been some startling developments.… Donald Trump is really a unique candidate. It just has to be said: He doesn’t fit a lot of…paradigms and models. In some ways every election is different. We try to generalize, and find patterns, and I think when it’s all said and done, even this year, there will be a lot of resemblances to past years. But I certainly think Trump has been a disruptive force in the Republican nomination process this year and has kept people off balance.”
“So the dynamics that we identified in the book haven’t been evident in this race,” Karol admitted. “Then the question becomes, Is it because the world has changed? The book was written in 2008. It’s possible. The world evolves. In the case of Trump, were he to become the nominee, I would say he really is a unique figure. He was better known than any of the other Republican candidates before he even got in the race. He’s better known than Jeb Bush—better known than anyone running except Hillary Clinton, and he’s actually been famous for even longer than she has.”