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The Party Decides

Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform

Throughout the contest for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, politicians and voters alike worried that the outcome might depend on the preferences of unelected superdelegates. This concern threw into relief the prevailing notion that—such unusually competitive cases notwithstanding—people, rather than parties, should and do control presidential nominations. But for the past several decades, The Party Decides shows, unelected insiders in both major parties have effectively selected candidates long before citizens reached the ballot box.

Tracing the evolution of presidential nominations since the 1790s, this volume demonstrates how party insiders have sought since America’s founding to control nominations as a means of getting what they want from government. Contrary to the common view that the party reforms of the 1970s gave voters more power, the authors contend that the most consequential contests remain the candidates’ fights for prominent endorsements and the support of various interest groups and state party leaders. These invisible primaries produce frontrunners long before most voters start paying attention, profoundly influencing final election outcomes and investing parties with far more nominating power than is generally recognized.

416 pages | 18 line drawings, 26 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Chicago Studies in American Politics

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Political Behavior and Public Opinion


“This fine book will set a new standard on the topic of U.S. presidential nominations and more generally U.S. political parties. The analysis is innovative, empirically anchored, zestfully presented, and credible. It is a natural for parties courses.”

David Mayhew, Yale University

The Party Decides presents a powerful case that political parties, properly conceived, remain the dominant force in the post-reform presidential nominating process. Cohen, Karol, Noel, and Zaller revive and sharpen a long-dormant group-centered theory of parties, use that theory insightfully to reanalyze the historical record, and conduct a creative and rigorous empirical assessment of the invisible primary and its impact on the selection of presidential nominees. This is a scholarly tour de force and a provocative challenge to the candidate-centered reporting and commentary on American politics.”

Thomas E. Mann, Brookings Institution

"The authors make their cases effectively through the use of a number of insightful analogies and creative use of empirical data. The book is a treasure trove of historical information on nomination battles."


"In many ways, [this] is a brilliant book in terms of bringing elites and groups back into the study of political parties and presidential nominations. . . . At its best, Cohen et al.’s new paradigms may still be the best guide to presidential nominations for decades to come."

Andrew Dowdle | Political Science Quarterly

Table of Contents

1    The Outrageous Nomination of Hubert Humphrey
2    Whose Parties?
3    The Creation of New Parties
4    Weak Structures, Strong Parties
5    Last Hurrahs of the Old System
Appendix to Chapter 5: State Parties in 1952
6    Mastering the Postreform System
Appendix to Chapter 6: A Closer Look at the Endorsement Data      
7    The Invisible Primary: Theory and Evidence
8    Anatomy of a Conversation
Appendix to Chapter 8: Models of the Invisible Primary      
9    The Voters Weigh In
Appendix to Chapter 9: Models of Delegate Share      
10    Political Parties Today


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