As a two-term vice president and 36-year senator, it’s not particularly surprising Joe Biden leads his 2020 Democratic primary rivals in endorsements from other officeholders. But less than six months out from the first nominating contest votes, in the Iowa caucuses, it’s unclear how much the endorsements will help.
Fivethirtyeight.com’s endorsement tracker shows Biden leading his Democratic primary opponents with a score of 110 points in the political endorsement contest, which is calculated by the number and quality of endorsements from current and former party leaders. The system weights endorsements by who is offering them, with vouchsafes from former presidents, vice presidents, and national party leaders worth a high of 10 points, to 1 point on the low end for a DNC committee member.
Biden’s endorsement roster includes a conspicuous name, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The California Democrat chose Biden over her current Senate colleague, Kamala Harris.
But Harris is no slouch in the endorsement arena. She’s pulling in a score of 89. Harris has secured not only a solid number of party leaders from her own state, outside of Feinstein, but also picked up endorsements from officials key states like Florida, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan.
How much, if at all, such endorsements matter, though, is an open question. To many voters, it just looks like one politician back-slapping another. And most voters are quite content to make up their own minds about who to back for president.
Then, there’s the example of the current president, Donald Trump, who secured the 2016 Republican presidential nomination with negligible support in the early primaries from GOP establishment figures like senators, governors, and top party officials.
“If this was 2015 and we were looking at Republican endorsements, and if we thought that was the most important thing, we would look at [former Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush and would have said, ‘Well he’s going to wrap this up,'” said Jeremy Mayer, associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “Trump got very few prominent endorsements early on — his first major endorsement was Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama.”
Historically, only a few endorsements truly stand out for their potency and ability to move primary votes. In January 2008, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, locked in a bitter primary battle against Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, won the endorsement of Democratic party royalty: the Kennedy clan. Or at least its most prominent members. While some Kennedy family members continued to back Clinton, Obama won the very public support of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his son, then-Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, and presidential daughter Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg. Obama went on to claim the Democratic nomination by edging out Clinton in the all-important delegate count, boosted by party insiders favorable to the family of the late President John F. Kennedy.
Four years earlier, President George W. Bush weighed in on behalf of Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who faced a Republican primary challenge from the right by then-Rep. Pat Toomey. Bush, chastised at the time by Democrats as a far-right extremist, went with the moderate Republican incumbent over his conservative challenger. During the campaign, in addition to the president himself, the Bush White House dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser, to campaign for Specter.
The incumbent ended up scoring a narrow 50.8-49.2 primary win.
And some political science literature suggests endorsements matter a fair amount, Meyer told the Washington Examiner. He cited the “party decides” theory, where endorsements are key.
“The party establishment does get to whittle down these candidates before the voters get a shot at them,” Mayer said.
In the 2020 race, many of Biden’s endorsements come from members of Congress he previously with, including former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The ex-South Dakota senator, who led his party in the Senate from 1995-2005, offered an early primary endorsement of Obama in 2008.
“People who used to be big in politics vary in their power as an endorser,” Mayer said. “You know, I look at Tom Daschle and Tom Daschle was a big deal for Barack Obama to get his endorsement in 2008. Is he still as big a name now that he’s supporting Joe Biden? I’m not so sure. It’s been a while since he was near the levers of power.”
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