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What Endorsements Matter Most In The Democratic Primary?

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


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Here at FiveThirtyEight, we’re interested in tracking presidential endorsements as they’re often a good indicator of which candidates the party is rallying behind.

So today let’s talk about the Democratic Party’s Kingmakers — or those endorsers that can make or break a candidate. First of all, who are they? And then second, what does a winning strategy in the endorsement primary look like? Should candidates prioritize endorsements from early-voting primary states? Does the type of office an endorser holds/held matter? Or is it all about the constituencies an endorser can bring to the table?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): What’s interesting to me is how few people have endorsed! I guess it’s still very early, but the clearest example I can point to of the endorsement primary already being underway is when all the candidates (or so it seemed) headed to Jim Clyburn’s South Carolina fish fry in June.

He, of course, is a big deal in the national party as well as in an early primary state.

And I think the fight over Clyburn is demonstrative of the battle over important black endorsers. In fact, between Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Joe Biden, I’d say there is already a pretty big push to win endorsements from members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Yeah, a Clyburn endorsement would definitely be in my top five or 10. But the thing about this year is that since Everybody’s Running, the endorsements you probably want the most are actually from the other candidates. In particular, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Biden, who all command large, loyal constituencies.

clare.malone: Very true, though the big candidate endorsements likely won’t happen until next summer, right?

Or next spring, if things shake out neatly.

galen (Galen Druke, podcast producer and reporter): At this point, it seems like a lot of these candidates are going to have enough money to keep them going well into the primary season, so I’m not holding my breath on those endorsements happening anytime soon.

clare.malone: Maybe, though some candidates might see the writing on the wall and they’ll want to have their endorsement actually matter.

Speaking of a BIG endorsement — and a new one at that — who Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decides to back is going to be big. My guess is it will come down to Warren or Sanders, but she’s said that she wants to wait to endorse, so I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out to see what she does.

galen: An endorsement from AOC would definitely confer progressive bona fides on a candidate, so it’ll be important to see who she endorses. And as we talk about endorsers, it’s important that we keep in mind what they represent: a demographic group, an ideological wing of the party, a certain state, or say, a figurehead like Obama.

natesilver: I mean, Obama is THE kingmaker.

But I don’t know if he’s going to endorse.

If does though, he’s like 10x more important than any other endorsement.

sarahf: But will Obama endorse?!

galen: NO

Unless it is Biden vs. Marianne Williamson at the end.

natesilver: I could see some circumstances where he would.

Especially if, like, a candidate he liked was ahead, but it seemed like Democrats were headed toward a contested convention, and he wanted to avoid that.

clare.malone: Yeah, Obama could endorse by early summer next year if things are still looking very crowded.

There will certainly come a point in the primary season where people start writing think pieces along the lines of “Have Democrats learned any lessons from the GOP’s disastrous 2016 primary??”

People will CLICK on those.

sarahf: But to the point Nate made earlier about people dropping out of the race and how their endorsements could be some of the most important endorsements this cycle … I have a question: How come their endorsements don’t get extra points in our tracker?

I, for one, would think they’d have a higher point value based on what we’ve discussed so far.

But I digress!

galen: Agree. I don’t understand why we give former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton the same number of points as Obama in the tracker.

So … explain that.

natesilver: I don’t think we should be thinking about this stuff in terms of the tracker.

The tracker tracks everyone, and we’re asking here if there are endorsements that carry SYMBOLIC and SUBSTANTIVE importance beyond that.

The value of endorsements isn’t in like “ohhh, Random Senator X endorsed Candidate Y,” it’s more that it’s a proxy for the “party deciding.” But some endorsements, e.g. Obama’s, really might persuade voters to think differently about the race.

sarahf: OK, so who are some other Democrats that might fall into this category, the “big names,” if you will?

We’ve got Obama, AOC and Clyburn.

galen: Apart from Barack, there is Michelle. Do you think the Obamas endorse together?

clare.malone: I think I disagree with Galen’s point about the weight of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton’s endorsements.

Clinton’s endorsement might be toxic in today’s party, but Carter is still seen as a moral leader.

galen: I agree with that, but I still don’t think his endorsement is as powerful as Obama’s.

clare.malone: No.

natesilver: HiLlArY ClInToN

sarahf: Oooh, I know Clare was talking about Bill Clinton’s endorsement being toxic, but I’m not so sure Hillary Clinton’s endorsement would be much better.

natesilver: Oh, you guys are totally wrong, the Clinton endorsements would still be a big deal.

clare.malone: Well, Hillary’s endorsement would certainly carry more weight than Bill’s at this juncture. Even if Bill still resonates with some communities, his sins (that were kinda forgiven in the past) are viewed very differently today by party elites.

galen: I honestly couldn’t tell you how this would play out, but I think candidates will play it safe and just try to keep the Clintons out of the conversation.

It is worth remembering that as of the 2018 midterms, Hillary Clinton’s approval rating among the broader public was still in the mid-30s.

natesilver: But Clinton won the primary by a WIDE margin four years ago! And a lot of Democrats like her! They didn’t want her to run again, but they still like her!

clare.malone: I don’t think she’ll endorse until there’s a named nominee.

Though, who knows–she might want to make waves! She does seem to occasionally throw bombs.

galen: Who of the top four would actively seek her endorsement?

natesilver: I think Harris and Warren, in particular, would seek her endorsement.

clare.malone: Harris for sure.

Warren I’m less sure about, though you could be right, Nate.

sarahf: OK, last call for the heavyweights. Who else?

natesilver: NaNcY PeLoSi

galen: Proxies for heavy hitters also matter — Valerie Jarrett, Eric Holder, for example.

natesilver: Ohhhh I totally disagree on the proxies.

clare.malone: I like the idea of proxies…

Why, Nate?

natesilver: Because who the hell cares who, say, Valerie Jarrett endorses. Nobody knows who she is.

galen: But party people know who she is and they might take it as a sign of what “Obama world” is thinking.

And that matters.

natesilver: ZZZZZ

clare.malone: Oh, I have one.

Pod Save America.

If they endorsed, they would be decently influential as a group.

galen: Hooo boy

clare.malone: I’m serious.

They’re a big platform for a core slice of the party.

natesilver: WHAT ABOUT CHAPO

sarahf: Hold on, I think Galen has a point about proxies, especially if many of these heavyweight endorsers won’t endorse until later. Sure, many people might not know who Valerie Jarrett is (she’s one of Obama’s longest-serving advisors), but say she and others from “Obama world” come out in support of one candidate. That matters, no?

Or at least political journalists (aka us) will write about it.

clare.malone: It would drive mini news cycles (maybe…)

natesilver: It matters in the “party decides” sense but not in the “kingmaker” sense. And we’re debating king- and queenmakers today.

sarahf: 👑

clare.malone: WHO IS MICHAEL DUKAKIS ENDORSING??????

sarahf: Warren. So that’s one heavyweight(?) down …

galen: Speaking of past presidential nominees … didn’t Walter Mondale endorse Amy Klobuchar?

natesilver: Mondale is for the Klob, yeah.

clare.malone: “The Klob” is the worst nickname ever.

Congrats.

sarahf: OK, let’s move away from who the heavyweights are (or aren’t) and back to the different endorsement strategies candidates should be using.

If a lot of these heavyweights are off the table, what lower-level king- and queenmakers should candidates be trying to win over now? Does it make sense to concentrate on just one state? Or maybe a state-specific strategy doesn’t matter?

galen: STATE KINGMAKERS

clare.malone: In Iowa, at least, you want people with a history of activism who drive people to the caucuses–so state lawmakers really matter there.

That’s why people always talk about the importance of courting activist types in those early states–it’s very retail politics driven.

galen: The upper Midwest just elected some new Democratic governors in 2018, who could make the argument that they know how to win those states as Democrats, and that they have a good sense for who should be the nominee.

I’m thinking Gretchen Whitmer (Michigan) or Tony Evers (Wisconsin).

natesilver: Yeah, Michigan seems like it’s a state that could be up for grabs.

galen: What if the Democratic governors of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania all endorsed together??

That could be kinda interesting

clare.malone: I don’t think it would happen, but sure! Interesting!

sarahf: What is a smart on-the-ground endorsement strategy at this point to win over these state kingmakers?

natesilver: Is there any strategy apart from kissing people’s asses a lot?

clare.malone: In the early states, a lot of national candidates go to local elected officials’ events, which makes the officials seem more high profile, in return for getting their on-the-ground/word-of-mouth push to voters.

So, yeah, ass kissing.

natesilver: Look, even Al Sharpton is getting a fair among of ass-kissing. That’s what this process involves.

clare.malone: What do you mean “even” Al Sharpton, Nate?

He’s a big name in Democratic politics.

natesilver: I mean that he’s pretty unpopular outside of narrow circles. Even in NYC, his favorability ratings are quite meh.

sarahf: So does this mean that candidates looking to have a strong performance in the early-voting states should concentrate their on-the-ground efforts there? Because I have to say, for all the talk of Iowa and New Hampshire as the first caucus and primary in the nation, it’s not exactly clear to me who the kingmakers are?

galen: Well, we know Clyburn is the kingmaker in South Carolina.

Perhaps Harry Reid is a kingmaker in Nevada?

And maybe there just fewer high-profile Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire at this point?

clare.malone: Unions are big in the Nevada caucuses, too.

In 2016, Clinton heavily courted Latino members of unions, for instance.

So maybe in Nevada things are more organized around unions.

natesilver: Nevada is also sort of a machine state, so I think Reid is one of those endorsements that could matter a lot in a very direct sense.

Nevada is a pretty hard one to figure out otherwise.

clare.malone: I think in Iowa, at least, there are clearer kingmakers in the GOP primary — for instance, Steve King and conservative family organizations have tended to be very influential.

sarahf: And there doesn’t seem to be the same Democratic equivalent, right?

But maybe that’s because the endorsement primary in these early states works differently and involves a much broader array of endorsers, including state legislators, labor unions, interest groups and even celebrities.

And so, say, the union vote matters more than anyone prominent individual.

Or at least this is the “party decides” view.

galen: Can we talk about endorsements from #NeverTrump Republicans? Does anyone think that these endorsements could matter?

natesilver: WHO WILL BRET STEPHENS ENDORSE?!?!?!?!

WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE OBAMA’S ENDORSEMENT OR BRET STEPHENS’S?

clare.malone: Bret Stephens will endorse Bill Weld or something.

OR…MARK SANFORD!!!

I’m so excited about Mark Sanford running (potentially).

Never forget the Appalachian Trail.

natesilver: I tend to think the media will overrate the importance of those cross-partisan endorsements. But I also think they COULD matter. In many states, the primaries are open to independents and Republicans, or there isn’t party registration at all.

sarahf: I don’t think we’re going to see anyone making explicit appeals to Never Trumpers in the primary, though.

clare.malone: Yeah, I don’t think Biden would seek out John Kasich’s endorsements in the primary, but it definitely wouldn’t hurt in the general.

natesilver: If Biden were to win the primary, I think it’s probably going to be a big part of his message.

sarahf: So it seems as if when it comes to the endorsement primary, there are two parts of it: 1) You want to build a broad coalition of support in the early states amid core constituencies whether that’s activists, unions or the like. 2) But you also want that extra boost from king- and queenmakers, except they often wait until very late in the process to make their endorsement … so how do you set yourself up for success there?

galen: Promise cabinet positions and ambassadorships.

I’m joking.

clare.malone: …. but are you?

galen: Yeah, I might not be joking.

Because what else can you do? You can make them feel special by wining and dining them and offer them something for their endorsement, or you can start winning so that people feel like they are on the winning team when they endorse you.

The first is easier to do. Winning is harder.

natesilver: I think it’s maybe more idiosyncratic and random than that. These are famous people with big egos. You build relationships, network, ass-kiss and yeah, maybe you can promise a few people a cabinet job or ambassadorship or even (!!!!!!!) the vice presidency (!!!!!!!!!). But there’s not THAT much you can do beyond that.

To the extent you’re spending more time in X state, it’s for all sorts of reasons — mostly that you think you can win that state — and not to gain more endorsements there.

clare.malone: And you as the candidate don’t need to make promises of jobs–people will assume they have your ear/a shot at influence, etc.

People like to think that their support for you will matter if you win.

natesilver: And they also like to endorse winners.

Sometimes the endorsements that matter the most are the unexpected ones. Like, if Beto O’Rourke were to get a big, unexpected endorsement, that might help him quite a bit right now because he’s sort of sucking wind otherwise.

Or if Bernie were to get Hillary Clinton’s endorsement, that would shake things up!

galen: Is anyone willing to argue that endorsements don’t matter anymore in Trump’s America?

natesilver: IN TRUMP’S AMERICA ONLY WHITE WORKING CLASS VOTERS AT TRUCK STOPS IN YOUNGSTOWN, OHIO MATTER. WHO ARE THEY ENDORSING?

clare.malone: No, because here’s the thing: People like it when other people help them navigate the political process.

And I don’t mean this condescendingly–there is A LOT going on in this election and people have A LOT going on in their lives. So they form bonds of trust in people/institutions and use those to guide their decisions. It’s the same way a lot of us make big decisions.

In politics as in life, endorsements matter.

natesilver: Yeah, I really … endorse that comment from Clare.

Voters aren’t able to pay as much attention to the race as we reporter-editor-journo-analysts might because they Actually Have Lives. So having a trusted person or institution endorse a candidate matters a lot.

galen: I also agree with Clare. The lesson from 2016 was not that the party can’t decide, but that the party wasn’t coordinated enough to decide, at least on the GOP side.

natesilver: We wrote about this a lot when we launched our endorsement tracker.

There’s plenty of reason to think endorsements still matter.

Also, EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT BECAUSE TRUMP is generally bad analysis, sorry, Galen.

galen: THAT WASN’T MY TAKE

natesilver: I JUST WANTED TO GET SOMEONE ELSE TO TALK IN ALL CAPS

clare.malone: I LOVE IT WHEN WE FIGHT

natesilver: IT WAS LONELY HERE

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

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Galen Druke is FiveThirtyEight’s podcast producer and reporter.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

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