Making Connections: The Role of Endorsements in the 2016 Election

Elena Gleed


Scholars credit candidate nominations as the core purpose of political parties. Indeed, the nominee determines the future for the course of the party and indicates the probability of victory. The increase of primaries and caucuses in the 1960s and 1970s transferred power from party elites’ nomination process to rank-and-file voters. Nonetheless, party officials have found that actively promoting their favorite candidates sways voters. During the “invisible primary” period- before the casting of any votes- party elites deliberate who can best serve as their party’s nominee. In turn, these early endorsements increase a candidate’s success in the state primaries and caucuses. Endorsements provide exceptional guidance in predicting the success of particular candidates.


Endorsements as Predictors

Endorsements attract positive media attention for a candidate and thus increase the candidate’s poll numbers. Positive poll outcomes generate more endorsements and donations. According to the political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, the number of early endorsements serves as the best indicator of a party’s nominee. Endorsements heavily influence the choice of voters who trust the opinions of their elected party representatives and officials.

Each election cycle since 1980 experienced either a rapid or slow pace of endorsements. For instance, during the Democratic and Republican nomination races of 2000, party elites endorsed candidates before the Iowa caucuses, and these candidates eventually won their nominations. On the other hand, there was less of an agreement between party officials regarding endorsements in the Democratic races of 1998 and 2004. Still, a steady increase of endorsements expands public support for the candidate.



The “invisible primary” of political endorsements has been in full swing for the Democratic Party before the 2016 election cycle even began. Using the notion that the more political party supporters a candidate can gain the more likely they will receive the nomination, the Democratic party began whittling down their options as early as 2013. Although Martin O’Malley and Joe Biden had several political supporters early in 2015, Hillary Clinton established herself as the frontrunner as she captured roughly ten senators, governors, and representatives in 2013, almost fifty in 2014, and since then has run away with the endorsement count. Looking at the chart above, we see Clinton’s resounding support over the last couple years and how, historically, her endorsement count for this particular moment is unprecedented, and possibly indicating an almost united Democratic party.


Furthermore, 538 endorsement rating system, which allocates one point per Representative, five points per Senator, and ten points per Governor, indicates that Clinton has 489 points, while Bernie Sanders has only seven points (See chart below).


What is even more interesting about this information is that if every Democratic Congressperson, Senator, and Governor supported one candidate,the possible point total would be 593, thus meaning that with Clinton’s current 489 points she has received roughly 82% of the possible endorsements.

People endorse particular candidates for numerous reasons. So although the data above would indicate that Clinton has had the nomination in her grasp for years, further research into Bernie Sanders’ endorsements proves otherwise. Sanders has received many independent advocacy support, including the American Postal Workers Union, National Nurses United, and former NAACP President Ben Jealous. Additionally, I speculate that Bernie’s low endorsement count is representative of his far left tendencies, but also of circumstance. As this election cycle unfolds, the Republican Party appears more and more distraught, and thus has provided an opportunity for the Democrats to unite quickly and control the agenda. With this, I figure many of the Hillary supporters are mostly in favor of uniting the party, and not her specific policies.



In contrast to the Democratic Party, where we can clearly see evidence of how “the party decides,” the GOP in the 2016 election offers an interesting counter-example, and perhaps even a rebuke to the notion of the “invisible primary” all together. Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, has managed to rally voters seemingly without the support of his party. According to fivethirtyeight he currently has only eleven party-member endorsements including seven House Republicans, one Senator, and three Governors (Chris Christie, Paul LePage, and Rick Scott) (see chart below). This gives him 42 total points on fivethirtyeight’s scale which we can compare to Cruz’s 92, Kasich’s 37, Clinton’s 489 and Sanders’ 7. Compared to past elections, Republican insiders have been slow to rally behind a 2016 candidate explains fivethirtyeight. Between the three remaining Republican choices (Cruz, Trump, and Kasich) it is unclear which candidate the GOP members of Congress will choose to endorse.


Martin Cohen, one of the author’s of The Party Decides explains that the GOP had slowly started to coalesce around Rubio, and is predicted to now rally behind Kasich. He admits however, that it is probably “too late” for the Republican “party to decide,” at this point as Trump’s voters have made their voices known. “There is a sentiment in the party that would prefer a President Hillary Clinton,” says Cohen, suggesting that for many in the GOP, the strategy now is to wait until 2020 to re-establish the party in the next campaign. Trump’s success as a non-traditional Republican nominee is unprecedented and has, in many ways, unsettled political theories such as Cohen’s “invisible primary.”







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