Vladimir Putin and Mitt Romney’s surprisingly similar problems

Elites want to back winners – but the two presidential candidates, once seen as inevitable winners, are stumbling.

The mass protests – the most recent of which was held in frigid weather – are politically damaging to Putin [AFP]

New York, NY – It is not shaping up to be a great week for either Vladimir Putin or Mitt Romney. Putin had to deal with the spectrum of yet another mass protest against his rule – and in extremely adverse weather conditions, making the protest all the more impressive – and Romney faced the somewhat humiliating spectacle of losing three primaries/caucuses in one night to Rick Santorum. Two men: both stumbling on their way to political power; both probably just hitting a minor road bump; but otherwise probably fairly unrelated, right? After all, this is probably the first piece you are reading comparing the two.

Actually, there may be more to the comparison. Professor Henry Hale of George Washington University has written in the journal World Politics (gated; ungated) that one distinguishing feature of what he calls “patronal” regimes (i.e., regimes dominated by patronage networks) is that:

When faced with such a point of anticipated power transfer, the elites want most of all to wind up on the side of the person who wins the ensuing presidential elections and succeeds the president… (p.140, emphasis added)

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In reading this for the first time, I thought that this might be a useful way to distinguish democracies from non-democracies that hold elections: In democracies, elites care about a particular side winning an election, but in non-democracies with elections (also known as competitive authoritarian regimes), perhaps elites only care about being on the winning side, regardless of who actually wins. The logic for this in the patronal regimes Hale describes is that elites just want to make sure they have continued access to the “goodies” the government can dispense: contracts for public works, tax breaks, access to companies being privatised by the government, key positions on government boards, and even outright bribes. End up on the right side of the power contest, and you can continue to be an insider and get access; end up on the wrong side, and you may lose access.

While Hale wrote these words to describe patronal regimes, re-reading them in the midst of the US primaries made me wonder about the extent to which they aren’t also applicable to major donors in primary campaigns. Let’s make the following three assumptions. First, big donors for presidential candidates in the primary for Party A are in part big donors because they want access to candidates once they win the election. Second, all (or most?) big donors to Party A prefer that Party A defeat Party B. Third, if a candidate from Party A is elected president, then the candidate is likely to give the most access to the big donors who supported him/her originally in the primary.

If we think these three relatively uncontroversial assumptions hold, then we are in a similar situation in a primary in a democratic country to the one Hale identified for patronal regimes: Elites face a dilemma about whom to support, and ultimately they are most (or at least are non-trivially) concerned about picking the candidate that is going to win.

So what does this mean for Putin and Romney? For Putin – the leader in the quintessential patronal regime Hale is attempting to characterise in his article – the lessons are obvious: He needs elites to continue to believe that he will stay in power. Now, prior to his decision to cede the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev four years ago, Putin might have credibly claimed that the formal powers of the Russian presidency would have assured him of unrivalled power. Had that continued to have been the case, Putin’s convincing other elites that he would remain in power would likely simply have involved winning the coming March presidential elections, something he will probably do.

We have to be open to the possibility that at some point, a cascade of elites may defect from Putin.”

However, the very fact that Putin himself demonstrated that someone other than the president can wield real power in Russia by he himself doing this while Medvedev was in power means that simply holding the office of the presidency will no longer be good enough. Consequently, the more protesters who continue to demonstrate that there is a legitimate opposition to Putin in the country – and especially that there is opposition among the selectorate of upper-middle-class Muscovites – the more elites may be tempted to join that opposition for fear of being left backing the wrong horse.

Thus the protests are a real problem for Putin, and – if they can continue in force once the presidential elections have come and gone, which is a goal of the protesters – then we have to be open to the possibility that at some point, a cascade of elites may defect from Putin. The key question that needs to be resolved from this perspective, therefore, is whether the protest can continue post-election season.

What about Romney? To the extent that big donors want to back the winner of the Republican primary for the reasons I addressed previously, Romney’s continued money advantage over other candidates – and it has been significant – would therefore seem to rest in part on big donors continuing to believe that Romney is the inevitable winner of the Republican primary. Tuesday night’s results in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri cannot help but cast a little more doubt on the inevitability of this outcome, although probably not too much at this stage. Still, it is clearly not the signal Romney wanted: Put the other way, winning all three contests would likely have continued to secure his fundraising advantage from this perspective.

This also raises the question of why big donors think Romney is likely to win the Republican primary. On the one hand, this is self-reinforcing: The more big money there is on Romney’s side, the more likely he is to win. But in a way like Putin, pundits have continuously suggested that Romney himself doesn’t seem to bring all that much to the table beyond a belief that he is the candidate most likely to win in November (although see John Sides’ post at The Monkey Cage for a contrarian view). With this in mind, this week’s Washington Post poll that Romney’s edge over Obama appears to have eroded may also hurt him in the contest to maintain the financial support of big money elites. At the very least, it is worth watching in the future.

The good news from Romney’s perspective is that – if my initial assumption, that democratic regimes differ from patronal regimes by the fact that elites ultimately do prefer one party to another, is correct – should he lock up the Republican nomination, this is probably a problem about which he will no longer need to worry. For Putin, as long as the protests continue to suggest that there may be limits to his ability to serve as the focal point of Russia’s political structure, the threat of elite defection is likely to remain.

Joshua A. Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the award winning politics and policy blog The Monkey Cage, where an earlier version of this article was posted.

Follow him on Twitter: @j_a_tucker