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We’re Tracking 2020 Presidential Endorsements. Here’s Why They Probably Still Matter.

Will order emerge from the early chaos of the 2020 Democratic presidential field? Or will the party remain as divided as Republicans were in 2016?

One indication will be whether Democratic elected officials and other influential party members seek to winnow the field by endorsing a narrow range of candidates. Confronting a similarly large field in 2016, Republican “party elites” never achieved any sort of consensus, with many potential endorsers sitting on the sidelines or not offering more than tepid support for establishment-friendly candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Meanwhile, Donald Trump emerged as the GOP nominee despite not receiving a single endorsement from a sitting Republican governor or member of Congress until after his wins in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.



So as we did in 2016, FiveThirtyEight will be tracking endorsements for the Democratic presidential nomination. We’ll also add the Republican nomination if it eventually appears that someone will give Trump a real run for his money, but we aren’t doing that just yet. Instead, we’ll be focusing on a universe of more than 900 potential Democratic endorsers, a more comprehensive list than we evaluated in 2016, including at least a few possible endorsers in every U.S. state and territory.

We’ll detail the procedures for tracking endorsements separately, but here’s some background about why we’re doing this and why we think it’s valuable both as a journalistic exercise and as a tool to help predict which Democrat will win.

Despite 2016, the party still mostly decides

The 2016 Republican campaign raised questions about the value of endorsements as a measure of success in the presidential primaries. Indeed, we raised a lot of those questions ourselves after being unduly skeptical of Trump’s chances of winning the nomination until around the time of the Iowa caucuses.

In our coverage of the 2016 primaries, we were heavily invested in the hypothesis articulated in the book “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform,” by the political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller. The book, which is also backed by other political science scholarship, argued that the preferences of party elites, as expressed by endorsements, tend to lead voter preferences. If party elites achieve consensus on a candidate, that candidate tends to win the nomination, even if he or she initially receives only tepid support in the polls, the book argues. And even if those elites can’t achieve consensus, parties rarely nominate candidates who aren’t at least minimally acceptable to the party establishment, it implies.

Trump was an extremely problematic data point for this hypothesis, as well as for our own expectations about how the nomination process was supposed to work. In the past, parties usually went for candidates who could be entrusted to enact the party’s agenda, but who also helped to maximize the chances of winning the general election. Trump was just the opposite of that: He bucked Republican orthodoxy on many issues, but he also polled poorly among independents and swing voters. So given the information available in early 2016, Trump looked like the worst of both worlds to the Republican establishment.1

So why bother tracking endorsements at all? Well, partly because whether or not they predict anything, we think it’s useful descriptive data — creating a fossil record of how the Democratic Party was behaving in 2019 and 2020. It also makes for a good reality check. One can make assertions about which candidates are backed by the party establishment and which ones aren’t, and these claims are common in media coverage of the campaigns. Tracking endorsements raises the bar by requiring tangible evidence for those claims, however. It’s potentially noteworthy, for instance, that the supposedly establishment-friendly New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand doesn’t have any endorsements yet, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders already has almost as many as he did in 2016.2

But also, to put it bluntly, we think a lot of political analysis is dumb. And a lot of the reason it’s dumb is because people are too quick to draw conclusions from just one or two cases. In fact, the “Party Decides” hypothesis has a fairly good track record overall. As poorly as the theory fared in the 2016 GOP nomination, it had done exceptionally well in the 2012 Republican race, when the party-backed Mitt Romney fought back a series of insurgent candidates (Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain) who surged in the polls but didn’t have staying power. That doesn’t mean the candidate leading in endorsements will automatically win the nomination, or even necessarily be an odds-on favorite. But endorsements are one of the more useful instruments to have in your toolkit if you’re taking a multifaceted approach to covering the primary.

The modern presidential nomination system emerged in advance of the 1972 election, when the Democrats’ McGovern-Fraser Commission adopted a series of reforms that gave voters a more direct say in electing delegates to the national convention through primaries and caucuses. From 1972 to 2016, the parties went through 16 nomination processes — nine for Democrats and seven for Republicans — that did not involve their own incumbent president running for re-election.

The argument of “The Party Decides” is that, despite the McGovern reforms, voters usually agreed with the party elites anyway. Indeed, in these 16 elections, the candidate who was leading in endorsements the day before the Iowa caucus won 10 nominations, or 63 percent of the time.

The endorsement leader usually wins

Leaders in endorsement points in nomination processes where no incumbent president was running for that party, 1972-2016

Year Party Endorsement leader before Iowa Did they have a clear endorsement lead? Did they win the nomination?
1972 D Ed Muskie
1976 D Fred Harris
1980 R Ronald Reagan
1984 D Walter Mondale
1988 D Dick Gephardt
1988 R George H.W. Bush
1992 D Bill Clinton
1996 R Bob Dole
2000 D Al Gore
2000 R George W. Bush
2004 D Howard Dean
2008 D Hillary Clinton
2008 R John McCain
2012 R Mitt Romney
2016 D Hillary Clinton
2016 R Jeb Bush

Endorsement leaders from 1980 to 2016 are based on FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 system for calculating endorsement points. Endorsement leaders in 1972 and 1976 are based on “The Party Decides.”

Sources: “The Party Decides,” News accounts

But look at the data in more detail, and a more subtle pattern emerges. In 11 instances since 1972, there has been a clear front-runner in endorsements as of the Iowa caucuses. That front-runner won the nomination nine times, the lone exceptions being Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Ed Muskie in 1972. In five other instances, there was no clear consensus among endorsers, and the endorsement leader was at best a first among equals. Only one of these five candidates (John McCain in 2008) won the nomination.

So in some ways, the question is not so much who gets the most endorsements but whether a consensus forms. Sometimes, party elites’ preferences are murky initially, but a clear front-runner emerges before Iowa: The most notable examples of this are Mitt Romney in 2012 (who at earlier points in time was neck-and-neck with Texas Gov. Rick Perry in endorsements) and Bill Clinton in 1992. A consensus can also emerge after Iowa and New Hampshire and potentially predict how contentious the rest of the nomination process will be. John Kerry got a huge surge in endorsements after winning Iowa and New Hampshire in 2004 and went on to secure the Democratic nomination with relative ease; in contrast, the Iowa and New Hampshire results in 2016 only seemed to freeze Republican endorsers, and the outcome of the GOP nomination remained fairly uncertain until late April or early May.

And although endorsements aren’t perfect, they do roughly as well as polls at predicting the nominee. Below is a comparison of the endorsement leader before Iowa and the leader in national polls at the same point in time.3

What happens when polls and endorsements disagree?

Leaders in endorsement points and national polls in nomination processes where no incumbent president was running for that party, 1972-2016

Year Party Endorsement leader before Iowa National polling leader before Iowa Nominee
1972 D Ed Muskie Ed Muskie George McGovern
1976 D Fred Harris George Wallace Jimmy Carter
1980 R Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan
1984 D Walter Mondale Walter Mondale Walter Mondale
1988 D Dick Gephardt Gary Hart Michael Dukakis
1988 R George H.W. Bush George H.W. Bush George H.W. Bush
1992 D Bill Clinton Bill Clinton Bill Clinton
1996 R Bob Dole Bob Dole Bob Dole
2000 D Al Gore Al Gore Al Gore
2000 R George W. Bush George W. Bush George W. Bush
2004 D Howard Dean Howard Dean John Kerry
2008 D Hillary Clinton Hillary Clinton Barack Obama
2008 R John McCain Rudy Giuliani John McCain
2012 R Mitt Romney Newt Gingrich Mitt Romney
2016 D Hillary Clinton Hillary Clinton Hillary Clinton
2016 R Jeb Bush Donald Trump Donald Trump

Endorsement leaders from 1980-2016 are based on FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 system for calculating endorsement points. Endorsement leaders in 1972 and 1976 are based on “The Party Decides.”

Sources: “The Party Decides,” News accounts

In 11 of the 16 nomination races, the pre-Iowa polling and endorsement leaders were the same. Differences have become more commonplace in recent years — in three of the five incumbent-free nomination processes since 2008, the polling and endorsement leader was not the same — which may suggest an increasing divide between voters and elites, especially within the Republican Party, or which may just be a fluke of a small sample size.

In the five cases where polls and endorsements differed, endorsements were right twice (Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008), polls were right once (Trump in 2016), and in the final two instances (the Democratic nominations in 1976 and 1988) a third candidate who was neither the polling nor the endorsement leader won. Given the small sample size, I wouldn’t call that a “win” for endorsements over polls, but I would say it’s at least a draw.

So the party usually does get its way. But it also usually agrees with voters in the first place — or at least it can live with their choices — and it’s not so clear what happens in the event of a disagreement. Maybe the voter-centric model of the 2016 Republican primary is the new normal, but we’ll need to see more evidence of that before we can say for sure. In Democratic primaries for governor and Congress in 2018, establishment-backed candidates prevailed a high percentage of the time, despite the media’s fixation on exceptions such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th Congressional District.

I haven’t talked much about which Democrats have received the most endorsements to date because it’s awfully early in the process and so far less than 10 percent of all Democratic endorsement points have been claimed. Furthermore, the large majority of the endorsements that have been made so far are from within the same state as the candidate, e.g. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz backing Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. So far, however, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has the most endorsement points, with Klobuchar and California Sen. Kamala Harris essentially tied for second. Sanders’s initial total, while well behind the other three, is also fairly promising for him given that he received so few endorsements in 2016.

That pretty much covers it. If you have any questions, or see any endorsements we’ve missed, please drop us a line. Otherwise, we hope you’ll check in regularly to see who’s winning the endorsement primary.

Footnotes

  1. Did Trump’s general election victory prove that those Republican elites were wrong all along? Well, maybe not. Trump remained extremely unpopular throughout the general election phase of the campaign — and he’s an unpopular president — but he won in large part because Hillary Clinton was nearly as unpopular as he was.

  2. Granted, it’s a low bar to clear, since almost all endorsers threw their weight behind Hillary Clinton in 2016.

  3. The polling leader is based on the FiveThirtyEight polling database, using an average of all national polls that were completed not more than 30 days before the Iowa caucuses. If a pollster surveyed the field multiple times during this period, only the most recent poll was included in the average.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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