While President Trump didn’t totally upend the “the party decides” theory that endorsements from political leaders can help a candidate win his or her party’s presidential nomination (it remained useful, for instance, in understanding how Hillary Clinton became her party’s nominee), his success did prompt some rethinking about how our political and media environments have made the success of a political outsider more likely.
Of course, part of what made 2016 so complicated was there were just so many Republicans running — 17 at one point. In addition to Trump’s surge in the polls, Republican Party elites failed to coalesce around one candidate as an alternative to Trump. Many GOP leaders took a wait-and-see approach, which led to a relatively low number of endorsements before the first primary contests in February 2016. So we were curious about what, if anything, the 2016 Republican primary can tell us about the 2020 Democratic race, which has even more candidates running. Do endorsements just work differently in a crowded primary?
We looked at endorsements made by senators, representatives and governors in the 2016 and 2020 cycles,1 and so far Democratic Party elites have been more likely to endorse candidates than Republicans in 2016. But a deeper dive into the data suggests that a spat of early endorsements accounts for much of the difference. It’s possible that, once again, endorsements may prove to be a less useful indicator when predicting who might win the nomination.
The chart below displays the total number of endorsements made by Republican governors and members of Congress in the 2016 cycle and the total number of endorsements made by Democratic governors and congresspeople through August 13. So far, 26 percent of Democrats have endorsed a candidate compared to 17 percent of Republicans who had made an endorsement at the same point in the 2016 cycle. And it’s worth noting that there were actually more possible Republican endorsers — 333 — than there are Democratic endorsers — 304.2
But as we said earlier, much of the difference is due to an endorsement-laden February 2019,3 when 30 Democratic members of Congress or governors backed a candidate. This was driven primarily by endorsements for Sen. Cory Booker, who received backing from 13 New Jersey Democrats — the governor, its other senator and all 11 Democratic representatives. To put February in context, the second-most active month in 2019 was April (12 endorsements, 10 of which went to former Vice President Joe Biden around the time of his campaign announcement), and the busiest Republican month in 2015 was November (16 endorsements, 10 of which went to Sen. Marco Rubio). And outside of February, the rate of endorsements in 2019 hasn’t been all that different from 2015, so it’s possible that Democrats may be as slow to endorse as Republicans were last time.
Looking back at the 2016 cycle, the number of GOP endorsements didn’t really balloon either until February 2016, when the first four primary contests occurred. During that month, 56 Republican senators, representatives and governors endorsed or switched their endorsements.4 And Trump only got his first endorsement from a member of Congress or governor on Feb. 24, one day after he won the Nevada caucuses and four days after winning the South Carolina primary. It wasn’t until late March that more than 50 percent of Republicans had endorsed a presidential candidate.
To better understand what happened in 2016 and how we might expect endorsements to work in another crowded primary field, I spoke with political scientists Hans Noel and David Karol, two of the authors of “The Party Decides.” For Noel, one notable thing about 2016 is how few Republicans endorsed. “I think the real story there was that they didn’t know who they were supposed to endorse. They didn’t like Trump but didn’t know who to stop him with, and then there were various reasons why they couldn’t coordinate there,” he said.
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And as Karol pointed out, it wasn’t just the size of the candidate field: it was also a question of which contenders presented the leading alternative to Trump. Candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz and then-Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin all had hang-ups that made it difficult for Republican leaders to rally around them. Bush, for instance, had raised a lot of money, but had limited appeal to the GOP base; Cruz was polarizing within the GOP establishment; and Walker’s early strength proved fleeting, as his campaign flatlined after Trump got into the race. “So without a consensus candidate, many Republicans waited to see how things developed rather than endorse,” Karol said. Both Karol and Noel reiterated that endorsements are most telling if one candidate is dominating them, which wasn’t the case in the 2016 GOP race and hasn’t happened so far in the 2020 Democratic primary.
When party leaders stay out or support a range of candidates, the nomination race tends to be wide open. And while, according to Karol, some of the leading Democratic contenders may have an easier time being accepted by different factions of the party than, say, Bush or Cruz in 2016, signs still point to an unpredictable contest. Part of that is probably a byproduct of 2016, when party leaders overwhelmingly backed Clinton — a move some later perceived as an error after Trump won. “A similar thing, I think, is happening now where Democrats are backing some folks but they’re not quite sure which of the several good choices can really pop up to the top, and they’re willing to wait,” Noel said. And given how crowded the Democratic field is, it may be several more months before we see another spate of endorsements.