The Other Thing That Happened Last Thursday

There was a game-changing event in the presidential election, but it wasn't the Republican debate.
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Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at Joey's Diner in Amherst, New Hampshire, on July 16, 2015. (Photo: Andrew Cline/Shutterstock)

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker speaks at Joey's Diner in Amherst, New Hampshire, on July 16, 2015. (Photo: Andrew Cline/Shutterstock)

Last Thursday was a pretty big day in American politics. Jon Stewart hosted his final episode of the Daily Show. Hillary Clinton hung out with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. And 17 Republican presidential candidates faced each other across two debates hosted by Fox News. These were entertaining events that occupied most of the political media coverage in the days that followed.

But something else happened you might have missed. Kurt Daudt endorsed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for the Republican presidential nomination. Who is Kurt Daudt? He's the Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives. That makes him the highest-ranking elected Republican in Minnesota, and he just fell in for Walker. This is an early move for Daudt, who backed Mitt Romney in 2012 just a few days before the Minnesota caucus.

A candidate winning the backing of a state's highest-ranking partisan elected official does not generate a ton of news, but it can have a substantial impact on determining how resources are deployed in that state.

Daudt isn't necessarily a kingmaker in the GOP. And even if he does have a lot of influence in his state, Minnesota isn't quite as pivotal as, say, New Hampshire or Iowa in presidential nomination politics. But it can nonetheless be important. The Minnesota caucus is one of nine presidential partisan contests being held on Super Tuesday, March 1st of next year. It's a relatively early event in the cycle, and, assuming some of the earlier contests are split between various candidates, it could prove important to the ultimate outcome.

What's more, we know from considerable evidence that the best predictor of primary and caucus results, along with the ultimate nomination, is endorsements from high-profile elected officials. Getting the endorsement from the top Republican in a state is just this sort of key event.

That doesn't mean that debate performances are irrelevant. Party insiders were watching last Thursday to see who might best advocate for the party's agenda while still being competitive in a general election. Walker wasn't necessarily inspiring at that event, but it's not like anyone else walked away with it, either. A really bad debate performance could end a candidacy, but neither Walker nor anyone else delivered that. Mostly, events like this end up reinforcing people's preconceptions about the candidates, and maybe offering a little limelight to those who have been starving for it recently. The amount of attention these debates get far outpaces their actual ability to affect the party's nomination.

Party endorsements are pretty much the opposite of that. A candidate winning the backing of a state's highest-ranking partisan elected official does not generate a ton of news, but it can have a substantial impact on determining how resources are deployed in that state and who ultimately ends up winning the primary or caucus.

Now, of course, Daudt's backing of Walker isn't the only party endorsement that occurred recently. Judging from the P2016 website, endorsements are going to a number of candidates, with Jeb Bush cleaning up among members of Congress. Still, Walker seems to be doing well among Iowa legislators. Rand Paul is raking in quite a few endorsements from New Hampshire.

But this isn't the story you'll get by following the debate coverage, which has largely focused on Donald Trump's insults, Marco Rubio's solid presentation, and Carly Fiorina's breakout performance. That's all fine, of course. As Brett Baier said at the beginning of the debate, the event was supposed to fall somewhere between a LeBron James dunk and the Cleveland Public Library. He's right. A good political event should provide both spectacle to get people interested and substance to inform and illuminate. Last Thursday's debate was a great cocktail of both.

But it doesn't necessarily tell you how this whole nomination contest is going to play out. If you want to understand that, it's far better to look at which partisan armies are forming behind which candidates. It's not nearly as sexy a story, but it's the right one.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.

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