The modern presidential primary process wields great influence over candidates and their campaigns. The first chance for voters to weigh in on which candidate the party should nominate to represent them in the general election comes in early February of the election year. However, for the candidates, the grueling process of launching a campaign strong enough to be competitive by early February typically begins years in advance. Political scientists refer to this starting point of political campaigns as “the invisible primary”, which is held exclusively amongst party officials.
The candidate selection process during the invisible primary held by party officials tends to produce an “establishment” front runner. In the Democratic primary, this is often the candidate with the most initial support from superdelegates, not prospective voters. Those able to cast a superdelegate vote are all party officials, including elected DNC members, Democratic State Governors, Democratic Members of Congress, current and former Democratic Presidents, Vice Presidents, Congressional leaders, and DNC Chairs. These superdelegates make up 15% of the total delegate count and are often allocated before states even begin to award delegates. This creates a psychological “front runner” in the eyes of voters before a single ballot is cast. Establishment front runners are overwhelmingly often a sitting or former politician previously elected to the highest levels of government.
During the 2000 election cycle, the DNC coalesced around Vice President Al Gore, in 2004 Senator John Kerry, in 2008 and 2016 former Senator Hillary Clinton, and in 2020 former Vice President Joe Biden. While Republicans do not have superdelegates, their invisible primary process equally identifies their “establishment candidate”. In 2000 this was Governor George W. Bush, in 2008 former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in 2012 Senator Mitt Romney, and in 2016, Governor Jeb Bush. While seven of these nine examples have gone on to win their parties respective primary, only two, George W. Bush and Joe Biden, have gone on to win the presidential election.
Based on this data, we can conclude that winning the invisible primary in either party is advantageous in winning the nomination, but disadvantageous to the candidate’s ultimate goal of winning the presidency. The only incumbent president to be defeated during the internet era was Donald Trump in 2020, however the Democratic Party very likely may discourage their “establishment candidate” President Biden from seeking re-election. Presumably in this case, the Democratic Party would endorse sitting Vice President Kamala Harris, gifting her the immense power of their superdelegates on Day 0.
Harvard Center of Political Science conducted an online study of 1,885 registered voters in late July and published August 1st, showing Trump winning the 2024 election over Biden 45% - 41%, with 14% of respondents unsure or unwilling to vote for either. In the same poll, Trump’s margin grew to 47% - 40% over Harris, with 13% of respondents unsure or unwilling to vote for either. The most important part of the study however, was illustrating voters distaste for these potential “establishment” candidates.
Trump 44% - 60% of respondents don’t want him to seek reelection
Biden 37% - 70% of respondents don’t want him to seek reelection
Harris 36% - No Specific Statistic Given