In case anyone missed it while arguing over Brian Williams’ diminishing career prospects or recoiling in horror over Barack Obama dissing of the Crusades, the Republican presidential race is already in mid-season form. We have surging candidates (Scott Walker), stumbling candidates (Chris Christie) and suddenly reluctant non-candidates (Mitt Romney 3.0). But most of all—a year before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary—we have polls. By the dozen.
The Des Moines Register propelled Wisconsin Governor Walker into the top tier of Republican contenders with a recent poll showing that he led all GOP presidential possibilities with 16 percent support among likely Iowa caucus-goers. Of course, the Republican field is so clotted that four other would-be candidates could have been leading in Iowa given the survey’s large (4.9 percent) margin of error.
Bloomberg Politics is currently ballyhooing a New Hampshire poll, conducted with Saint Anselm College, showing Jeb Bush topping the GOP field with, yes, 16 percent. Furthermore, the Bloomberg/Saint Anselm survey claims that just 14 percent of Republican voters in the Granite State are unsure of their presidential choice. Iowa Republicans, by the way, are allegedly even more rock solid in their 2016 picks—only 5 percent in the Iowa Poll say that they are “not sure” of their choice for president.
These are, of course, ludicrous numbers.
Too-much-too-soon Iowa and New Hampshire polls merely reflect name recognition and shallow first impressions about the candidates. Here are eight words that every polling maven should remember: “Hillary Clinton’s sky-high poll ratings in 2007.” If that fails to convince, try these three words instead: “President Rudy Giuliani.”
An equally insidious illusion fostered by these premature polls is the fiction that most voters in these early states have already made up their minds. This flies against common sense—but this ersatz certainty helps media organizations create bandwagon headlines. When horserace polls fail to give voters an easy escape hatch, respondents tend to give off-the-cuff answers to avoid appearing ignorant.
All this brings us to my favorite 2015 poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center for WMUR, the dominant TV station in the state. The poll begins by asking GOP voters whether they have made up their minds on a 2016 candidate or if they are “still trying to decide.” By giving respondents the opportunity to express indecision without losing face, the Granite State Poll found that—reasonably enough—85 percent of voters had no idea whom they would end up supporting for president.
There has always been a note of irrationality to the news media’s chronicling of presidential politics. Candidates are often belittled for not meeting the stylistic expectations of the press pack and meaningless events like the Iowa Straw Poll (won in 2011 by Michele Bachmann) are over-hyped as emblematic tests of strength. But the media’s coverage of polls and the presidential horserace also reflects an ingrained belief in popular sovereignty—that ultimately the voters get to choose their party’s nominee for the White House.
As Theodore White’s enduring classic, The Making of the President 1960, dramatically illustrates, party elites chose the presidential nominees a half century ago. In 1960, the 16 primaries (many of them non-binding on the delegates) were regarded as symbolic events like the West Virginia contest in which John Kennedy demonstrated that his Catholicism would not be a major obstacle to the presidency. Hubert Humphrey, who lost West Virginia to JFK, had said earlier, “Any man who goes into a primary isn’t fit to be president. You have to be crazy to go into a primary.”
Everything changed with the Democratic Party’s reform movement that grew out of the tumultuous 1968 Chicago Convention that, yes, nominated the same Humphrey who would have never entered a primary. As Elaine Kamarck points out in Primary Politics, “25 percent of the delegates to the 1968 Democratic convention had been chosen in 1967—long before the New Hampshire primary crystalized antiwar sentiment against President Johnson.”
Primaries quickly became the favored way to bring democracy to the rigged game of presidential delegate selection. By 1980, 31 states selected their convention delegates through binding primaries—and the voting power of ordinary Americans has remained unchecked since then. In fact, most contemporary voters are only dimly aware that presidential nominees were once chosen in smoke-filled rooms like the suite at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago where Warren Harding was anointed in 1920.
Despite the current polling frenzy, this presidential cycle could mark a return to the era when voters are again reduced to spear-carriers in presidential nomination fights while the real operatic struggles take place off-stage.
That is the true significance to the recent announcement by the Koch brothers that they and their network of secret conservative donors plan to spend precisely $889 million on the 2016 campaign. It remains uncertain how heavily the Koch brothers and other Super PAC billionaires intend to invest in the GOP primaries. But if they were looking to dominate the Republican Party, nothing would rival the wallop of dropping, say, $300 million in the primaries backing a favored candidate.
For all the publicity surrounding Sheldon Adelson’s flamboyant support for Newt Gingrich in the 2012 primaries, Super PACs only entered the fray late in the nomination contest. In contrast, the 2016 gold rush is apt to resemble Sutter’s Creek in 1848. And if the Koch brothers or other mega-donors put the full weight of their fortunes on the line, the Republican nominee could be chosen solely on the basis of Big Money for the first time in the primary era.
Thirteen years after the McCain-Feingold bill was signed into law by George W. Bush, there is virtually no constituency for campaign reform within the Republican Party. Grassroots conservative activists have bought the fiction that any attempt to curb Super PACs is really a Democratic plot to enhance the power of the liberal news media and, by implication, to elect Hillary Clinton. Rather than regarding the Koch brothers and their ilk as a threat to democracy, populist Republicans see these meddlesome billionaires as the last line of defense against a Democratic takeover of Washington.
That is why the role that Super PACs will play in the wide-open 2016 Republican primary race remains so intriguing. If the Koch brothers or their counterparts try to heavily tilt the scales on behalf of a favored establishment candidate, it will be impossible to blame this intervention in the Republican presidential race on Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. It may even belatedly dawn on conservative activists that they are being effectively disenfranchised because of Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United that they once so enthusiastically cheered.
Back in the crime-ridden 1980s, Republicans loved the joke that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. Maybe after the 2016 GOP primaries, the gag will be that a campaign reformer is a conservative whose candidate has been mugged by a Super PAC.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.