Rick Perry and the Invisible Primary

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 9:38 PM EDT

Yesterday I said that although Rick Perry's immigration gaffe is getting a lot of attention, his "real problem is that Thursday's debate badly shook up a GOP establishment that was pretty uneasy with him already." Adam Serwer dissents: "According to a forthcoming study from Harvard's Theda Skocpol and two of her graduate students, Vanessa Williamson and John Coggin, immigration is among the most important issues for self-identified 'Tea Party' Republicans."

This is actually a pretty minor disagreement, since I too believe that Perry's immigration apostasy is a really big deal. Still, it's worth explaining briefly why I said what I said. Basically, I'm piggybacking on the views of political scientists Martin Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, who wrote an influential book a couple of years ago called The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. Their contention is that the key fight isn't so much the primaries themselves, but the "invisible primary" that's fought for several months before voting ever starts. During this time, candidates fight for the attention and endorsements of party insiders, as represented by interest groups, state party leaders, funders, media bigwigs, and others whose support is either important in its own right (because lots of people take their cues from them) or whose support is an important signal of acceptability. Hans Noel explains:

Our argument is that the party is not just the formal DNC and RNC chair and the official hierarchy. It’s all of the people who have made a commitment to be part of the group that’s coordinating together to try to advance the party’s interests.

You could say the voters count too, because they’re doing some type of coordination and trying to encourage their friends. But their contribution is much smaller, because they don’t have as much influence. So we focus more on the high-profile actors, but we have an expansive definition to encompass all the elite actors who are trying to help the party achieve its collective goals.

And those goals are to find a nominee who can win, but who is also someone they can trust. Whether they can trust them because they’re in the right place ideologically is part of it, but it’s richer than that. It’s someone who they think will advance party goals over their own personal goals.

If you buy this argument, it means that although tea party unhappiness with Perry over immigration is what's getting lots of attention, it's really just a superficial sign of a deeper danger. Perry's real problem is that his inability to address an obvious and predictable problem with the base — which reveals either laziness, ineptitude, stubbornness, or all of the above — makes him an unreliable candidate. If this view starts to harden among party insiders, they'll eventually start to signal their support for Romney or some other candidate, and the rank-and-file will follow their lead.

By all accounts, Perry's disastrous debate performance has hurt him badly in the invisible primary. He's still got plenty of time to rejuvenate himself, but he can't afford too many more outings like last Thursday's. The party is watching.

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