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How Much Does Obama’s Endorsement Of Biden Matter?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Former Vice President Joe Biden picked up three notable endorsements this week. The first was from his former rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who endorsed him on Monday, less than a week after he dropped out of the race. The second was from his former running mate, former President Barack Obama, who endorsed him on Tuesday. [Editor’s Note: And Sen. Elizabeth Warren endorsed Biden on Wednesday, after this chat concluded.]

These endorsements point to a party coalescing behind its nominee, and Obama’s endorsement, in particular, could be especially influential as he remains popular among Democrats and is seen as a kingmaker in the party. So just how important is Obama’s endorsement, especially at this stage in the primary?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): How best to put this … Obama’s endorsement is simultaneously completely unsurprising/pro forma and also an important part of political pageantry.

Like, obviously no one doubted that Obama would endorse the eventual Democratic nominee. And I don’t think it will really matter in terms of winning Biden votes in the general election (although I expect we’ll debate that below).

But it is still a nice little bit of free media for Biden and has come to be an expected part of the modern presidential campaign — the old party leader draping his arm around the new one. Certainly without that moment, Biden would have had a problem, as the question of “Why hasn’t Obama endorsed?” would hang over his campaign. So it’s important in that respect.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I was just thinking about that as I watched the endorsement video — I’m not sure who would care about the Obama endorsement who wasn’t already basically fine with Biden.

But I do think this is a move to get things going into the general election.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): It’s pretty typical for a president to eventually endorse his former VP, but it would’ve been far more memorable had Obama publicly endorsed Biden before the Democratic primary was over.

julia_azari: I totally agree with that, Geoffrey. I’ll try to come up with something to disagree about so as to be less boring.

sarahf: Geoffrey also raises something that’s been asked a number of times this primary: Should Obama have backed Biden sooner from the standpoint of Democrats?

nrakich: From Biden’s perspective, of course! From Obama’s perspective, nah.

Obviously, Biden would have loved Obama’s endorsement from the get-go. It would have scared a lot of other contenders out of the race and made him even more of a favorite than he already was. But Obama’s motives may have been different.

geoffrey.skelley: Obama was smart not to publicly endorse until now, as he was able to avoid exacerbating intraparty divisions.

nrakich: Obama also has his legacy to think of. He is beloved by pretty much all corners of the party — why risk that? Also, why risk having your endorsed candidate lose, thus showing that your own party doesn’t care what you have to say anymore?

julia_azari: I think there’s a sense after 2016 (and 2004, and 2000) that assembling a winning coalition for Democrats is tricky and requires a lot of pieces to be in place. And although Bill Clinton endorsed Al Gore in December 1999, helping to clear the field, I think for a variety of reasons that sort of field-clearing would have been ill-advised this time around. The timing and informal politics of presidential nominations have changed.

sarahf: Why is that, Julia?

julia_azari: Part of it has to do with the fallout from 2016 and accusations that the process was “rigged.” While I don’t think that the conspiracy theories about the DNC are right, it is true that (per “The Party Decides”) party actors try to do things like clearing the field for former vice presidents and other establishment-type candidates. Also, it was far from obvious that Biden was going to be the nominee. So as Geoffrey and Nathaniel are saying, if you’re Obama, why stick your neck out to endorse Biden before things are settled?

geoffrey.skelley: However, there are rumors — and some evidence — that Obama may have been moving behind the scenes to get the party’s establishment to coalesce behind Biden right after South Carolina, which may have contributed to the timing of former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s departures and subsequent endorsements of Biden ahead of Super Tuesday.

sarahf: The New York Times reported he met with Sanders’s team at least four times and played a big role in getting Sanders to drop out when he did. That’s … pretty big, right?

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, I would say convincing Sanders to not extend the primary fight might be a bigger deal than Obama endorsing Biden, if only because a drawn-out primary might have left room for more ruffled feathers and division. I don’t want to overstate things, though, because Sanders was doing much worse than he did in 2016, so he also had some incentive to not hang around this time.

nrakich: Yeah, I think Obama’s reported orchestration of the dropouts of Sanders, Buttigieg or Klobuchar is much more important than Tuesday’s public endorsement. Maybe that was a way for Obama to achieve the outcome of an earlier Biden endorsement without incurring any of its backlash. Obama’s main incentive to endorse Biden earlier would have been if he was strongly opposed to another candidate (i.e., Sanders) and his vision for the party. But he may have decided to address that concern behind the scenes rather than stick his neck out publicly.

julia_azari: And as I noted last year, there were several candidates running in 2020 who might have carried on Obama’s legacy: Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker and Buttigieg. So again, there’s no real incentive for Obama to endorse sooner. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Biden wasn’t the best candidate to carry on Obama’s legacy despite his closeness to the president. New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz has suggested as much — Biden was selected in 2008 in part because he wouldn’t pose a threat to his legacy by running for president later. Of course, that didn’t pan out, but I think that argument is persuasive.

geoffrey.skelley: It’s worth noting that Obama dissuaded Biden from running against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, too.

julia_azari: But the main reason I think Obama got in this game so late was the changing norms about competition in presidential primaries (i.e., there should be some rules for when a former president can endorse) and not because it was Biden, his former running mate, per se.

geoffrey.skelley: That makes sense, Julia. If there was a sense that someone was putting a thumb on the scale, that would rankle a significant chunk of the Democratic primary electorate and potentially create more discord.

However, I do think there’s a question of how big a role Obama has played quietly behind the scenes since he left office.

As we know, he played a part in keeping Biden out ahead of 2016, and then it seems as if he played a part in the party coalescing around Biden instead of Sanders in 2020. So maybe he’s always been maneuvering behind the scenes where possible to get his preferred result under the circumstances.

nrakich: Yeah, Geoffrey — maybe Obama has actually always been extremely active in intraparty backroom dealing and we just don’t know the full extent!

geoffrey.skelley: We’ll need someone’s great tell-all book on the subject in a few years to help us out.

sarahf: But some of the timing question must have also had to do with how Obama would handle the role of “sidekick to his former sidekick,” right? That is, there is a real risk that Obama’s star power overshadows Biden, and the primary becomes about him. Take this headline from Politico from a few days ago, for instance: “Barack Obama wins the Democratic primary.”

Obviously, Biden wanted Obama’s endorsement, but I think there’s a real question of how much of a role he wants Obama to have in his campaign moving forward.

julia_azari: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. There’s a very odd role reversal in Obama now being the sidekick because Biden was the more experienced politician to start with.

Also, Biden has embraced the Obama legacy idea in a way that strikes me as somewhat novel. Most former or sitting VPs try to make their own pitch, but Biden has really tried to connect himself to Obama’s legacy. Given the power of norms and normalcy at this moment (even pre-COVID-19, though I think that exacerbates it) it isn’t a dumb political move. But it is sort of uncharted in modern politics, where politicians’ individual qualities are often more important than their affiliations.

This might only be tangentially related, but since the 2016 Republican primary I’ve been thinking a lot about the absence of actors who have real influence. Rep. James Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden showed that there are still some actors with informal influence in the Democratic Party. Obama is another such actor, and perhaps his late entry into the race signals that he understands the scope and potential downsides of that power.

But a healthy party has more people like that and doesn’t rely on popular former presidents — former presidents, for one thing, lack any formal power to go along with their informal influence.

nrakich: As we’ve discussed before, though, Biden doesn’t really have a party-unity problem — at least no more than past nominees.

I just don’t think there’s anyone out there who is saying, “Well, I was on the fence about Biden, but now that Obama has endorsed him, he has my support.”

julia_azari: I think Obama’s endorsement is a signal to less-attentive voters, like, ‘OK, we’re doing this.’

sarahf: Is it possible though, that Obama’s endorsement backfires or is something Trump can use against Biden?

geoffrey.skelley: There’s obviously a major chunk of the Republican base that has great antipathy for Obama, but you’d think most of those voters would already vote for Trump regardless.

nrakich: Right, polarization is king. Most people already know if they are going to vote for Biden or Trump. Obama’s endorsement is unsurprising, so it’s unlikely to make a difference. Heck, even huge news events like impeachment or the coronavirus (so far) barely move the needle.

sarahf: What about Obama’s popularity among the ever-coveted independents?

geoffrey.skelley: I guess it can’t hurt with independents, but Trump’s underwater ratings among them hurts much more than Obama’s endorsement of Biden helps.

julia_azari: One question I have moving forward is whether politicians will have to develop a different calculus to attract news coverage. I expect that stories about the coronavirus will dominate for a long time.

sarahf: Yeah … how much more would Obama’s endorsement have meant if it was him and Biden at a campaign stop when he took the stage in front of hundreds (or thousands) of supporters? I think we’re starting to see some of the real limitations of remote campaigning.

But given what Obama has reportedly done behind the scenes for Biden already (help coalesce the party, get Sanders to drop out) and what he can do now that he’s publicly backed Biden (fundraise, fundraise!), I think that is still a win for Biden at the end of the day.

nrakich: I think that’s right, Sarah. Under normal conditions where the presidential race were still the top story, this would dominate the news cycle (rightly or wrongly), which might lead to a free-media bump for Biden.

sarahf: The timing, though, of Sanders (the rival) endorsing yesterday and Obama (the former commander-in-chief) endorsing today was smart. Especially if Obama helped orchestrate the former.

nrakich: Twitter is not real life, but this is pretty impressive:

Although people who are Very Online are probably especially unlikely to be swayed by this!

sarahf: I think you might be underestimating the cues of this, Nathaniel, for less-attentive voters as Julia said.

julia_azari: Yeah, I really stand by my statement that this is a reminder for marginally attentive people that the primary happened, has concluded, and the general election is starting with Biden as the party nominee. And if you liked life under the Obama administration better than now, the former president’s endorsement is telling you, ‘This is the guy.’

nrakich: I’m not trying to minimize that! But I don’t think this is changing minds.

I agree it’s a cue to maybe start tuning in.

And as I said at the beginning, it’s an important part of political pageantry.

julia_azari: Speaking of pageantry, I was struck by just how partisan the announcement was.

Obama accused Republicans of being interested in power, talked about their attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and stressed that some of our democratic values are under attack.

geoffrey.skelley: Maybe that approach is part of trying to make sure that this election is a referendum on the president? Given Trump’s consistently mediocre approval rating, that would seem like a wise approach.

julia_azari: It also tells you that this was about cueing people for the general and not really about consolidating the party at the end of the primary.

sarahf: Which maybe goes back to Nathaniel’s point that it’s less about Obama’s endorsement convincing people to vote for Biden, and more about setting the stage for what’s at stake here in 2020.

But OK, to wrap — just how big of a deal is Obama’s endorsement?

geoffrey.skelley: On a scale from 1 to 10, I give it a … 4? If we knew for sure that he was central in helping get much of the party behind Biden, I would give that a 10 out of 10 for importance.

Encouraging Sanders to drop out, though, that’s like an 8 or 9.

nrakich: I agree with Geoffrey that it would be very important if Obama was helping Biden behind the scenes, but I don’t think of that as the same as this public endorsement. He could have done one without the other.

julia_azari: If we mean “likely to help Biden,” then I give it a 2. If we mean “indicative of other forces around nomination politics,” I give it an 8. I think the real lesson here is that Obama has been pretty involved in politics for a past president. Some of this has to do with the tenor of partisan politics, and some of it has to do with the fact that he’s quite popular and still a pretty young former president.

geoffrey.skelley: The popularity of Obama really stands out to me. George W. Bush was not a much-desired figure at GOP events four years after his presidency, much less during the 2008 campaign to succeed him. Whereas Biden will happily deploy Obama wherever the former president can help, and down-ballot Democrats will love having him, too.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Our 2020 Election Priors

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”