Although Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails The Memo: Like the dress or not, Ocasio-Cortez is driving the conversation again Ocasio-Cortez defends attendance of Met Gala amid GOP uproar MORE’s (R-Texas) formal announcement that he will run for the presidency means that he is the first official candidate to declare his 2016 ambitions, anybody with a television set knows that the contest for who will next occupy the White House is well underway.  For months—in some cases, years—contenders from both parties have been jostling for money, backers, advisers and foot soldiers ahead of next year’s primaries and general election.

During this “invisible primary,” candidates do their utmost to shape the parties to which they belong: articulating visions, staking positions, proposing policies.  Each wants to lead to victory in 2016 a party that reflects their image.  Cruz’s homily at Liberty University showcased this: an attempt to convince the Republican Party that his brand of conservatism represents the best bet for reclaiming the White House and rebuilding America.

But the invisible primary is also a process whereby the parties themselves get to mould the field of candidates.  Despite all the talk of candidate-centered campaigns and elections, political parties are not empty vessels for candidates to commandeer.  They are political organisms with hearts and souls, not easily tamed by would-be princes.  From this perspective, the important thing to watch this year is not so much what candidates like Cruz are doing or saying but rather how the party organizations are responding to their overtures.


Earlier in American history, the parties used to be the obvious masters of candidates for office, selecting candidates behind closed doors via secret bargains struck among elected officials and other party grandees.  A candidate would thus emerge from a smoke-filled room confident that a sprawling national organization would be called upon to back his bid for the White House but largely in hock to that same organization.

Known as “King Caucus,” this elite-centered selection process was laid to rest in the Jacksonian era, when the parties moved towards more democratic nominating conventions as forums for choosing candidates.  Instead of a Washington cabal deciding upon candidates for office, party organizers from across the nation would now assemble, deliberate, haggle and horse-trade in hopes of finding consensus over who should enjoy the party’s endorsement.

Formally, conventions are still the bodies that choose the parties’ presidential candidates.  But in practice, of course, the conventions have seen their decision-making powers usurped by the widespread adoption of primary elections.  Nowadays, it is usually obvious which candidate a convention will choose because almost all of the delegates in attendance are pledged to vote for a particular contender.  And because primaries are democratic elections over which party elites have little visible control, who represents each party at the general election has thus become a matter for primary goers to decide—in some cases, ordinary voters not even affiliated with the party.

On its face, this nominating process means that official primary elections (and caucuses) should be the focus of nominating season.  And to be sure, the state-wide votes held between January and June next year will indeed determine which two candidates duke it out in November 2016.  But behind the scenes, party organizations—bosses, donors, affiliates, opinion-leaders, die-hards—still exert a significant influence.  Winning over some major portion of the party is still a pre-requisite to winning the primaries.

Political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller describe this dynamic in their 2008 book, The Party Decides.  While the authors do not discount the role of primaries (and those who vote in primaries) in determining the outcome of nomination process, they caution that a sole focus on primary elections risks missing the important role played by powerful party organizations now, before even a vote has been cast.


The authors adopt a broad understanding of party organization to include not just office-holders and elected officials but also interest groups and activists—the building blocks of mass, catch-all political parties.  Conceptualized in this way, parties can—and do—significantly shape the nomination process before that process has formally begun.  The allocation of campaign finance is particularly important in this regard, but a candidate’s ability to annex an adequate share of their party’s finite election-winning machinery (advisers, fundraisers, public relations specialists, grassroots organizers, media backers and so forth) is also critical.

During the invisible primary, then, party organizations effectively construct a short-list of viable candidates that primary voters will get to choose from come primary season.  The formal process of primary voting still matters, of course, but not to the total exclusion of the role of the party.

For the rest of this year, every presidential hopeful will find themselves engaged in a fight for approval by a decisive slice of their respective party. Cruz obviously is staking out a claim to the most conservative elements of the GOP coalition, for example.  Candidates who win enough backing over the next nine months will survive to fight another day—in the actual primary contests and perhaps the general election of next year.

But those who fail to garner credibility will be forced to stand down in the coming months.  As such, while the race for the White House will not be won this year, for some candidates the race will be lost—months before a single Iowan sets foot in a high school gymnasium.

Harris is lecturer in Politics at Earlham College, Indiana, and a regular contributor to The National Interest.