Do Endorsements Matter? No. And Yes.
Last year, we looked at how accurate polls going into the Iowa Caucus have been at predicting the eventual outcome of that state’s first-in-the-nation election. The conclusion, way back then, was that surveys conducted a few months out from voting have not historically been very good at telling us who was going to win.
It turns out the same can be said of political endorsements—at least if you take any endorsement in isolation. As Newsweek Deputy Politics Editor Tara Francis Chan put it bluntly last fall: “individual endorsements rarely change minds.”
That is bad news for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who, despite having recently picked up the Des Moines Register’s recommendation for the Democratic presidential nomination, finds herself behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Vice President Joe Biden, and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the Iowa polling average and certainly is hoping for some fresh momentum.
The Register nomination is unlikely to give it to her, though. In 2016, the newspaper itself cautioned readers that “endorsements are not predictions.” Instead they are “recommendations of the Register’s editorial board” and “some years the picks have an impact on the caucuses and ultimately the nominations, and other years they do not.”
More often than not, the newspaper’s endorsement has not had an impact—at least for Democrats. The Register started making endorsements in 1988 when it recommended Sen. Bob Dole (Kansas) for the GOP nomination and Sen. Paul Simon (Illinois) for the Democratic nomination. Simon didn’t win the Iowa Caucus or his party’s nomination, and Sen. Dole only won the Caucus.
There were no endorsements in 1992 when incumbent President George H.W. Bush ran for reelection and when hometown Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was vying for the Democratic nomination. After 1992, the Register’s endorsement also was Republican party voters’ choice most of the time (Dole in 1996; George W. Bush in 2000; Sen. John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, though McCain and Romney lost their respective caucuses).
When it comes to reading the minds of Democratic voters in the state, however, Iowa’s newspaper of record is not a reliable source. In 2000, the newspaper endorsed failed nominee Sen. Bill Bradley (New Jersey). Sen. John Edwards (North Carolina) was the Register’s choice in 2004 while Hillary Clinton was its candidate in 2008 when she lost to the eventual nominee and president Barack Obama.
In fact, the only time the Register’s preferred candidate won the Caucus and the Democratic nomination was in 2016 when the newspaper endorsed Hillary Clinton. Clinton, of course, ultimately lost the general election to President Donald Trump.
In New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary, the state’s Union Leader also has a spotty record. According to Ballotpedia, the Union Leader endorsed former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the Republican nomination in 2016 (President Trump won the primary) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 2012 when Mitt Romney was that party’s nominee. It endorsed former Sen. Joe Lieberman (Connecticut) for the Democratic nomination in 2004, and Sen. John Kerry won the primary.
In the 2016 campaign between Clinton and Trump, the Union Leader, which had endorsed a Republican in every general election over the last century, opted to back Libertarian Candidate Gary Johnson instead of Trump. As CNN noted at the time, the newspaper made that choice shortly after its own choice for the GOP nomination, Gov. Christie, warned at a breakfast event in New Hampshire that, “If you are a Republican and you are not working for Donald Trump over the next 55 days, you are working for Hillary Clinton.”
The Leader’s endorsement didn’t have much of an impact on its readers votes that November. Gary Johnson got 4.1 percent of the New Hampshire vote in 2016 and Clinton won the New Hampshire general election, but it was eventual President Trump who had the last laugh.
Even if individual endorsements are not a reliable predictor of who will win the nomination or White House, Washington insiders love to track who is attracting the most endorsements.
Why? Because, cumulatively, they actually might make a difference.
If so, who has the most endorsements at this point?
While Sen. Elizabeth Warren has generated a lot of buzz for the nods she received from The New York Times and the Des Moines Register, former Vice President Joe Biden actually is way ahead in what the campaigns and elections website FiveThirtyEight has dubbed, “The 2020 Endorsement Primary.”
The site allots points for different types of endorsements. Has Bill Clinton said he’ll vote for you? A nod from a former president is worth 10 points. A governor’s endorsement is worth eight points, and one from a mayor of a major city (population of 300,000 or more) is worth three points. (DC obviously loves its parlor games.)
As of January 28, Biden had 232 points, nearly three times the 81 points that Sen. Warren had. (For context, Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) had generated 95 points before she dropped out of the race late last year.) Sen. Sanders has 55 points; Sen. Amy Klobuchar has 50; and Michael Bloomberg and Buttigieg have 36 each.
Interestingly, this consensus tracker has been a somewhat more reliable indicator than individual endorsements when it comes to predicting election outcomes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton, the eventual Democratic nominee, had 523 points, far exceeding Sen. Sanders’ 13. On the Republican side, it wasn’t as accurate, however. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) won the endorsement primary with 139 points. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) had 114 points and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich had 48 points. Current President Donald Trump only had 46 points.
The 2016 GOP primary may have been an anomaly, however. FiveThirtyEight notes that the most comprehensive study of endorsements, carried out in 2008 by political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, found that in presidential nominating contests between 1980 and 2004 “early endorsements … are the most important cause of candidate success in the state primaries and caucuses.” Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all won their endorsement primaries, as did nominees Romney (Republican nominee in 2012), Sen. Kerry (Democratic nominee in 2004), Al Gore (Democratic nominee in 2000), and Dole (Republican nominee in 1996).
So, if individual endorsements aren’t all that good at predicting a winner, what good are they good for?
Well, FiveThirtyEight has a reasonable hypothesis. For starters, they can help build momentum. The site says, “Party elites use endorsements to influence not only voters but also each other, hoping to get other powerful party members to rally behind the candidate they think would be most acceptable.” Additionally, the site says the pace of endorsements can indicate how drawn out the primary season will be. The faster endorsements come out, the shorter the season. Finally, “a lack of a consensus can mean that party leaders’ first-choice candidate may have more trouble securing the nomination.”
Joe Biden’s 232 points are about 32 percent of the 735 points FiveThirtyEight has doled out those far in the 2020 Democratic primary. Is that consensus?
We’ll see as the primaries begin in earnest over the weeks and months ahead.