What's in an Endorsement?

Does an endorsement actually move votes? Or is it just a sign of other political support?
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Does an endorsement actually move votes? Or is it just a sign of other political support?
(Photo: igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock)

(Photo: igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock)

A number of political observers, including me, have been focusing heavily on endorsement patterns in the early 2016 presidential race. (See Andrew Prokop's recent piece on some of the controversy here.) We've noted that party endorsements—rather than polls, fundraising numbers, or anything else—tend to be the best predictors of who will actually get the nomination. This is why we've been insisting that someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio will probably get the Republican nod and someone like Donald Trump or Ben Carson probably won't, despite early polling patterns. But why might this be so? What is it about endorsements that leads to nominations?

There actually isn't a lot of agreement on just what endorsements do for a candidate. The most influential book on this topic, the Party Decides, notably doesn't make the argument that endorsements necessarily cause primary voters to vote a certain way. Rather, it treats endorsements as the most visible indicator of the way party insiders are leaning.

If party insiders—defined broadly as officeholders, major donors, activists, interest groups, and others—want a particular candidate to become its presidential nominee, there's a lot they can do to make that happen. They can provide money and expertise, defend the candidate when she is criticized, bend rules to provide ballot and debate access, etc. More importantly, they can spread the word among active primary voters and caucus goers that this is our candidate. This is why the insiders' choice tends to win. But a lot of this activity doesn't occur in the open and is very hard to measure. Endorsements provide a pretty clear image of which way the insiders are leaning, even if it misses some activity.

The Republican Party is offering us a nice test of the power of endorsements this year. Can they steer the party away from picking early crowd favorites?

Yet there's evidence from other scholarship that endorsements by themselves actually do move votes. In some recent research I did with Thad Kousser, Eric McGhee, and Scott Lucas, we looked at recent statehouse and congressional elections in California under the state's new "top-two" primary system. The state parties have become very active in recent elections by issuing endorsements in primaries, as they are rightly worried about the prospects of losing control of their nominations. Those formal party endorsements are printed in the state ballot booklet that goes out to voters before the primary.

We found that the Democratic Party's endorsement actually moved votes in the primary election. The party's imprimatur seemed to provide a candidate with a boost of around 10 percentage points. The size of the boost varied importantly with context. As we found in an experiment, the Democratic endorsement worked better for traditional liberal Democratic candidates than it did for more moderate, business-oriented ones. So there are limits to what a voter will accept from an endorsement—you can't necessarily convince a voter to support a candidate who is antithetical to her party's longstanding goals.

So there's some evidence that endorsements by themselves can move votes. And we probably all have personal experience with this sort of thing. If you have ever tried to decide your vote on a confusing state or local initiative, one of the first things you probably did was ask, "Well, who's supporting this?" The same can be true in a crowded primary field. If you haven't heard of any of the candidates in a down-ballot election, just knowing that the bulk of elected officials you have heard of are backing one of them can be reassuring.

In the real world, of course, endorsements rarely operate in isolation. The preponderance of party endorsements leaning one way tends to re-assure donors, who give more to that candidate. Good campaign consultants notice those signals, too, and provide their expertise to the candidate. You may never bother to find out which state legislative candidate has the bulk of party endorsements behind her. But if you see her name on hundreds of billboards during your drive to and from work, if you hear her name frequently on the radio, if you get mailers with her name on them talking about an issue you care about, chances are that will have some kind of effect on you, even if it's a pretty subtle or even unconscious one. And endorsements could have made that all happen.

This is all very much in play at the presidential level. Hillary Clinton's dominance of insider endorsements is the real reason she's considered the all-but-certain nominee of the Democratic Party. And it's the reason her strongest primary opponent is a self-described democratic socialist who isn't even a registered Democrat; early endorsement patterns scared all the other high quality Democratic candidates out of the race.

It's operating in the Republican Party as well. The endorsement patterns still aren't very strong there—a lot of insiders have simply not picked a horse just yet—but it's pretty clear who they don't prefer. That's the outsiders like Trump, Carson, and Carly Fiorina, who have been at or near the top of the polls recently. So the Republican Party is offering us a nice test of the power of endorsements this year. Can they steer the party away from picking early crowd favorites? History suggests they will, but just how that happens will be a fascinating story.


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