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The 2020 Endorsement Race Is Getting Interesting

If you’ve been following endorsements of the 2020 Democratic primary field, the biggest thing that stands out is the lack of them, as my colleague Geoffrey Skelley wrote recently. Joe Biden has far more endorsement points1 than any other candidate, per FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker, but the majority of major figures in the Democratic Party haven’t gotten behind anyone.

But as more and more endorsements have trickled in, some interesting patterns have begun to emerge. The Democratic Party has fissures along generational, ideological and racial lines, and you’re beginning to see those in whom officials are aligning themselves with. Moreover, we have enough endorsements now to start making some tentative hypotheses about how this year’s candidates are viewed by the party elite.

[Our Latest Forecast: Who Will Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?]

So here are some interesting trends I’ve noticed in the endorsement race so far:

1. Iowa and New Hampshire’s political classes aren’t excited about Biden or Bernie Sanders

Among the Democratic state legislators in Iowa who have endorsed a candidate, Amy Klobuchar (17) and Elizabeth Warren (12) lead, followed by Biden (11), Pete Buttigieg (6) and Sanders (1), according to Iowa Starting Line.2 Warren has the most endorsements among state legislators in New Hampshire, per a list compiled by University of Houston political scientist Boris Shor.3 And the biggest papers in those states have endorsed one of the two female senators too — the Des Moines Register backed Warren; the Manchester Union-Leader backed Klobuchar.

What’s going on here? After all, Biden and Sanders lead in national polls. They lead in Iowa and New Hampshire polls too. Warren is fourth in polls of the first two states, and Klobuchar is fifth.

But the strength of Klobuchar and Warren among elected officials and political power brokers in Iowa and New Hampshire is another illustration of what seems to have happened more broadly in the 2020 Democratic primary: Voters have essentially foisted Biden and Sanders onto the party — basically the reverse of what (arguably) happened in 2016, when the Democratic Party establishment mobilized behind Hillary Clinton but the voters weren’t totally on board.

Do Parties Or Voters Choose Presidential Nominees?

The huge field of candidates at the start of the 2020 process reflected the wariness of Democratic elites of both Biden and Sanders. These Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic officials probably both expected and hoped that the party’s voters would eventually move away from Biden and Sanders. That sentiment is also reflected in the New York Times’s recent decision to endorse both Klobuchar and Warren — essentially a rejection of Biden and Sanders, the two frontrunners.

There’s “less drive to pick a winner since it’s so unclear this year who the winner actually will be” in Iowa, said Pat Rynard, managing editor of Iowa Starting Line, explaining why officials in Iowa might feel free to back candidates who aren’t polling that high.

Perhaps these endorsements are capturing something that polls aren’t, and either Klobuchar or Warren, or both, will finish in the top three in Iowa or New Hampshire. Maybe one will win one or both of the states. Both races are still wide open. But at least right now, it looks like a big bloc of Democratic voters in Iowa and nationally don’t see anything wrong with Biden and Sanders — even if some party elites are hinting that they should.

2. In Washington, centrist Democrats really don’t want Warren or Sanders … or Buttigieg or Klobuchar

In the U.S. House, Democrats have three main ideological blocs: the Congressional Progressive Caucus, with 95 House members (representing the party’s most liberal wing); the center-left New Democratic Coalition, which has 102 members; and the Blue Dogs, with 25 members (Democrats’ most conservative bloc). I’ve also been keeping an eye on the 51-member Congressional Black Caucus, the 34-member Hispanic Caucus and the 30 Democratic House members who represent districts that President Trump won in 2016.

Unsurprisingly, Biden is leading among the New Democrats (20 of 34) and the Blue Dogs (4 of 7) who have chosen a candidate. Reflecting the ideological split in the party, Sanders and Warren have just one endorsement from those groups combined.4 And illustrating the concerns of center-left Democrats that Sanders and Warren’s liberalism would hurt the party electorally, none of the Trump-district House Democrats have endorsed Sanders or Warren. (Six are with Biden, one with Michael Bloomberg, another with Buttigieg.)

Warren (11) has the most endorsements among the 26 Progressive Caucus members who have backed a candidate. But seven progressives, including the group’s two leaders, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, are supporting Sanders. One of the big questions in this race is whether decidedly-liberal-but-still-establishment Democratic Party figures, including members of the Progressive Caucus, will mobilize behind Warren or Sanders if either wins Iowa and New Hampshire — or if they would echo the concerns of more centrist Democrats that the policy visions of those two are too electorally risky.

Somewhat surprisingly, Biden also has seven endorsements from the progressives. That might be a sign that Biden is more a consensus candidate among the party’s powerbrokers than Sanders or Warren, since they have so little support from more centrist figures. Secondly, it probably reinforces the argument of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has suggested that the Progressive Caucus is too ideologically diverse, and that she and very liberal Democrats should create their own bloc. Third, five of the seven progressives behind Biden are black or Latino, which illustrates how race is playing a bigger role than ideology in this race in some ways.

Speaking of … Biden has by far the most endorsements from CBC House members (15 of 19), and also leads among Hispanic members (4 of 9).

Buttigieg, who is generally considered the fourth top-tier candidate in this race, isn’t doing particularly well with any of the House factions: He doesn’t have a single endorsement from the Hispanic Caucus members or the Blue Dogs; he has one from a Progressive Caucus member, one from the CBC, one from a member in a Trump district and four among the New Democrats. Klobuchar is doing even worse — she doesn’t have a single House endorsement outside of her colleagues in the Minnesota delegation.

3. The billionaires are looking pretty good

When Bloomberg entered the race on Nov. 24, it seemed a bit odd at the time: Buttigieg seemed to be successfully filling the space for a candidate to the right of Sanders or Warren but also not Biden. But perhaps Bloomberg was savvy to jump in. Despite starting nine months after the South Bend mayor entered the race, the Bloomberg campaign has shown signs of life nationally. That’s showing up in the polls and endorsements.

Bloomberg is essentially tied in national polls with Buttigieg, who has not been able to match his relatively strong polling numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire outside of those states. And while Bloomberg doesn’t have a lot of endorsements, neither does Buttigieg. Bloomberg is running neck-and-neck with the former South Bend mayor, per the FiveThirtyEight tracker, and he’s not that far behind Sanders and Klobuchar.

Similarly, Tom Steyer is making some noise in Nevada and South Carolina. Steyer is in fourth place in both states, according to our forecasts — ahead of Buttigieg. Steyer, according to a count from the Charleston-based Post and Courier, has the backing of six state legislators in South Carolina — significantly more than Warren (2) or Buttigieg (0).

The results in Iowa and New Hampshire might lift Buttigieg or Warren, or maybe the first two states will cement Biden’s frontrunner status. In that world, Bloomberg and Steyer would regret not competing harder in the first two states.

But right now, the two billionaires’ strategy is working — no doubt aided by their money. Both Bloomberg and Steyer are spending way more than the other candidates on television ads, and all of those commercials may be boosting their standings.

Secondly, if you are a Democratic official considering which candidate to endorse, it’s hard to ignore the obvious: If Bloomberg or Steyer is not elected president, they will still have millions of dollars and a demonstrated interest in spending it on politics. It’s probably smart to get on their good sides. Several of the cities run by mayors who have endorsed Bloomberg have received money from Bloomberg’s various philanthropic projects, , some of which invest millions of dollars in initiatives at the city level.

“The fact is Steyer has invested a ton of resources in South Carolina, not just on TV and digital (though it is impossible to turn on a TV or YouTube in South Carolina these days without seeing his face), but also with a huge and well-paid staff, including a lot of field organizers,” said Jamie Lovegrove, a political reporter at the Post and Courier.

4. Many key parts of the Democratic coalition are divided or on the sidelines

Finally, I just want to return to the point we started with: The absence of consensus in the Democratic Party.

The black left is anti-Biden but also not unified behind someone. The broader Democratic left is also anti-Biden, but split between Warren and Sanders. The anti-Trump resistance groups like Indivisible can’t agree on a candidate, so they haven’t endorsed anyone. Sanders has the most labor unions backing him, but many big unions are either not endorsing anyone or are supporting Biden. For good measure, Never Trump Republicans willing to back a Democrat haven’t really gotten behind a single candidate, although they are largely unified against one (Sanders.)

Again, my colleague Geoff wrote about this point in more detail, but it’s worth emphasizing: Most parts of the Democratic coalition have been unable to reach a real consensus on a candidate, basically leaving it up to the voters.

To conclude, as the pre-voting endorsement period winds down, I think there is one important takeaway: the struggles of Buttigieg and Warren to build broader support among party elites.

Sanders has been essentially running a campaign against the Democratic Party establishment for five years, so it’s not surprising at all that party officials are not rushing to endorse him. Many party elites have doubts about Biden, which is why the party’s ex-vice president wasn’t able to clear the field at the start. Accordingly, there was an opening for a candidate to be embraced by a lot of factions in the party, and Buttigieg and Warren in particular have been trying to position themselves as fresher faces who could appeal to a broad range of groups.

But so far, some blocs in the party have rejected them aggressively — in ways that likely convinced other blocs of Democrats that those candidates could not unify the party. When Warren nearly caught up in polls with Biden in late October, centrist figures in the party emphasized their concerns about her leftism and ability to win the general election. Buttigieg surged in Iowa a few weeks later, and black Democrats blasted him so hard that it would have been difficult for many prominent white Democrats to endorse him without being viewed as racially insensitive. And they did not.

The party hasn’t really chosen Biden, but it definitely hasn’t chosen Sanders, Buttigieg or Warren either. So the race is likely to be wide open as voting gets underway. The polls suggest that’s a good thing for Sanders and especially Biden.


  1. See here for more on how the points work.

  2. Note: Iowa Starting Line tracks all state legislator endorsements in the Hawkeye State — FiveThirtyEight does not. Also, the endorsement numbers for Iowa and generally throughout this story are as of 4 p.m. ET on Jan. 27.

  3. Biden leads in endorsements in South Carolina, Nevada and the Super Tuesday states, but only a small fraction of the legislators in Nevada and the Super Tuesday states have endorsed anyone.

  4. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas is a member of the New Democrats and has endorsed the Massachusetts senator.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.