Why Political Endorsements are Important in the Presidential Primaries

Why Political Endorsements are Important in the Presidential Primaries

If you’re listening to the radio or TV right now you’re going to start hearing a lot about party endorsements of Presidential Candidates so I thought I’d take a second to explain what they are and why they’re important.

An endorsement is an official backing of a candidate. It’s when someone says, yes, this is the candidate I stamp for approval. This is the person I believe in and, so should you.

According to some of the top political scientists in the country endorsements have been THE best predictors of which candidates will ultimately succeed or fail in the primary election season.

Where once Presidential nominees were chosen in smokey, back rooms at the convention by the powers that be, the rise of primaries and caucuses in the 1960’s and 70’s took that power and gave it to the every day voter. Not to be outdone, the elites found a way to work around their loss of influence in choosing the candidate when they realized that by combining their endorsements they could sway voters in one direction or another.

It should be kept in mind that not all endorsements are created equal. Statisticians at Nate Silver’s FiftyThirtyEight have created a weighting scale for the power of official enforcements with Governor endorsements being worth 10 points, Senators being 5 and House Representatives worth 1.

Just like sports have stats for everything, so too, do politics.

During the year leading up to the primary election there’s something called “the invisible primary” where the party elites start gravitating around the candidates they believe is the most acceptable to both winning the general election and keeping the party on message. Over the past few decades, whenever the elites have come to a consensus on the best candidate, voters have inevitably ended up following their lead. (See: 1996 nomination of Bob Dole and 2000 nomination of George W. Bush & Al Gore)

And all this is often decided before the primary season even begins.

It works like this: Endorsements and donations give a candidate a media attention which typically causes their poll numbers to increase. Those increased poll numbers generate more media coverage, which generates MORE endorsements and donations and, eventually the endorsed candidate’s rivals find themselves simply squeezed out of the competition.

There’s two ways to look at this: One, Party influence and endorsements are a good thing. Players in the political game have been paying more attention. They know they candidates better and have studied them more intently than any regular voter could have so they have significantly more insight into their temperament, intelligence and experience to run the country. Or two, party influence and endorsements is a bad thing as it puts a unbalanced amount of influence into the hands of an elite few (along with a bunch of rich donors) before actual voters have even been taken into account.

While every election cycle is different, nomination races since 1980 have fallen into two categories. Either party elites decide to RALLY AROUND one candidate well before the Iowa caucus begins (Hillary Clinton 2016) orparty officials HANG BACK until the initial voting has begun and only settle on their endorsements after the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire Primary. (2016 Republican Race…??)

Endorsements aren’t foolproof either. In 2008 more Democrats initially endorsed Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama but, after his early primary successes in states like Iowa and South Carolina, more and more endorsements started rolling his way which ultimately solidified him as the party favorite and stamped him with the official approval. That party approval was the kick he needed to take the lead from Clinton and end up with the Presidential nomination.

Here’s what’s interesting this year. Currently Hillary Clinton currently has more endorsements locked down than any non-incumbent (current President seeking a second term) in the history of modern American elections. Most of these endorsements were acquired before she’d even officially declared a run. As per Nate Silvers’s FiftyThirtyEight scale, Clinton has 465 points to Bernie Sanders 2 points. However, many voters are seemingly disinterested in being told the winner’s already decided. They want their say and they’re feeling the Bern. They’re standing up to the elites to say yes, we the rank and file (ordinary members of the party rather than the leaders) still have something to say about who our nominee is and we will fight you all the way to the convention floor. It’ll be interesting to watch and see if Bernie Sanders can keep his momentum and grass root interest strong enough to balance the weight of all the political power behind Clinton. It’ll be even more interesting if he’s ahead of Hillary coming into the convention and the super delegates go ahead and choose her anyway.

The Republican side is fascinating too. As of now, very few party leaders have endorsed anyone (15% total endorsements as of day after Iowa caucus) so the field is still wide open. This slow march to a decision shows us the party is still working furiously behind the scenes to decide who’s the best candidate for the party’s success. With Donald Trump seemingly untrusted by the GOP Establishment and first place Iowa Caucus winner Ted Cruz almost universally disliked by that same establishment we really should start looking to Iowa’s third place winner Marco Rubio as the man to watch. Currently he’s picked up endorsements from South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, Former GOP Presidential candidate George Pataki and is expecting Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomy any day. Though Jeb Bush’s can’t be counted out as he currently leads his party in endorsements, has money to burn and a name to build on and did very well in the Pre-New Hampshire debate.

Republican endorsements? My money is on Rubio but we should wait and see how New Hampshire and South Carolina shake out. I don’t envy Sanders uphill battle against the Democratic establishment but I’d sure like to see if he can go all the way. What a show that would be.





Aaron Bycoffe: projects.FiveThirtyEight.com
Lynn Vavreck NYTimes
Justin Wolfers NYTimes