Ballot Requirements Another Way the Party Decides

Getting on the ballot in all states is a challenge for presidential candidates who lack party support.

Former businesswoman Carly Fiorina speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26
Former businesswoman Carly Fiorina speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 26 (Gage Skidmore)

Regular readers of the Atlantic Sentinel will know that we subscribe to the theory that “the party decides”: It are the professional party actors, rather than American voters, who really elect their party’s presidential candidates.

Politico today reports on one aspect of this: the challenge of getting a candidate on the ballot in all fifty states.

The business of getting a candidate’s name on the ballot is a costly and complex endeavor, a major drain of money and manpower that threatens to weed out the most underfunded campaigns and strain the others in what remains a historically unwieldy Republican field. Some states require thousands of signatures to qualify; others charge tens of thousands of dollars.

Some low-tier candidates complain that the requirements — which have actually been relaxed from four years ago — are designed to make life harder for them.

They are.

Rigged game

Carly Fiorina, a former businesswoman, accused “party bosses” this week of trying to “rig the game — to protect the establishment candidates and then try to keep everyone else out.”

That’s not quite true. There is no “establishment” candidate to protect yet. But she’s right that the game is rigged.

The political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller argued in 2008 that it is “the” party — broadly defined as a coalition of donors, elected officials, party insiders and affiliated interest and lobby groups — that decides the nominating contest.

FiveThirtyEight‘s Nate Silver has argued that the party has a lot of ways in which it can influence the selection process: It appoints superdelegates, schedules debates and has hundreds of millions of dollars to spent on advertising.

His website keeps track of the endorsements candidates have received, because they are usually a good indicator of which way the party is leaning.

This reveals that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has the Democratic nomination all but locked up. No presidential candidate in living memory has had such strong institutional support as she does this time around. On top of the hundreds of elected officials who have publicly backed her, Clinton also has the support of most of the country’s largest trade unions: important Democratic Party allies.

Republicans yet to make up their minds

On the Republican side, the picture looks very different.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and brother of the last Republican president, is ahead, but only just. Based on the paltry number of endorsements he has received so far, it is hard to argue that Bush is the “establishment” favorite already. If anything, they show that the Republican establishment hasn’t made up its mind yet.

Jonathan Bernstein has suggested at Bloomberg View that party actors may wait until after the early voting voting contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in February have provided new evidence about who is electable before rallying around a single candidate.

The contest to win the establishment’s blessing seems down to Bush and fellow Floridian Marco Rubio. Both would stand a fair change against Clinton in the 2016 election.

Bush, Rubio as well as Texas senator Ted Cruz have the organization and resources to get their names on the ballot nationwide.

It is more of a challenge for New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Ohio’s John Kasich and Kentucky’s Rand Paul.

Third-tier candidates like Fiorina will likely fail to qualify for every caucus and primary.

Fiorina is dismayed. “Every conservative candidate deserves to be on the ballot,” she says.

But that’s not how Republican Party actors see it. They’re not in this to organize a “fair” fight. They are in this to win the 2016 election and someone like Fiorina, they believe, wouldn’t.