Politico has a half-excellent story (by Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin) up today about GOP "elites" choosing between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry that's worth thinking about. Politico reports that Republican big donors, politicians and other party actors are concerned about electability, but they’re also trying to pick the right horse — once it’s clear who the nominee will be, there’s a strong incentive to jump on the bandwagon.
What's good about the story is that it's almost certainly true that GOP party actors are making their choices now and in the next few months, and that their choices will go a long way toward determining the nominee. And I think the story is correct to point to two of the factors in that choice. Party actors do indeed have incentives to select the candidate who will do best in the fall 2012 election, and there's also a real dynamic in which no one wants to be left behind as the nomination is decided. Indeed, that dynamic introduces a lot of complexity to the process, as various players try to read the signals that others are sending about who is likely to win and therefore which bandwagon to jump on and when, a process that is further complicated because the candidates themselves are trying to influence the impression that party actors have of how the race is going.
What's missing from the story, however, is any other reasons that party actors might choose one or the other candidate. From the story, it would seem as if it were pure electoral calculation. That's almost certainly not the case, however. Many party actors have strong policy preferences, either because they personally care about policy, or because they have constituents who care (and in this sense, leaders of party-aligned interest groups have constituents, as do many formal party officials or staff members). The second thing that should matter to party actors is a sense of whether they can trust the candidate to be responsive if he or she is elected. In some ways, that matters even more than policy commitments; after all, what use are policy commitments if they can’t be counted on? The problem for party actors of all types, whether they’re considered “establishment” or not, is that the incentives for presidents often diverge from the interests of their parties. So on the one hand, it’s important to tie the candidate as explicitly as possible to policy commitments, while on the other hand it’s equally important to get a sense of the person and how he or she has acted in office in the past to get clues about the future.
And there’s a third thing that party actors would be wise to consider: the evidence for whether the candidates would actually be good at being president. That’s related to the question of trust, but it’s not quite the same thing. It’s also, to be sure, not all that easy to figure out in advance. But in my view, it’s probably the most important question for party actors. After all, it doesn’t matter very much if the president you elect is fully committed to your issues if he or she is then unable to deliver once in office — and perhaps more important, the president’s performance will probably have a lot more effect on long-term party prospects than anything else.
Now, I don’t know for a fact that the party actors Politico is talking to are interested in all of those things, but I suspect they are, and it’s a real story if they are not. So, as I said, it’s interesting to know that they are concerned with electability and wanting to be with a winner — that’s definitely a real and important part of the story — but I hope that we can get some reporting on the rest of it, too.