Endorsements and the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominating Contest

In all the talk about Bernie Sanders’ presidential prospects yesterday, I’m reasonably sure I didn’t write anything or even think anything about the number of elected-official and party leader endorsements he and HRC had corralled. That may be because I tend to think of endorsements as more an effect than a cause of one’s high political standing, and also because there’s not much doubt HRC is the candidate of the Democratic Establishment, is there? On top of all that, I have yet to bend the knee to the 2008 book The Party Decides–which most political scientists cite with the kind of reverence usually reserved for holy scriptures–as the final authority on all things related to nomination contests; the book rates endorsement counts highly.

So here you have at Ten Miles Square today from Seth Masket an analysis that is focused on endorsements:

Claims that Sanders is doing well are based almost entirely on his polling position, and we know from a great deal of research that early polling does a poor job predicting who will win a party’s presidential nomination. (In the spring of 2011, the poll leaders for the Republican contest were Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich, in that order.) What does a much better job predicting nomination winners is endorsements. Basically, the more endorsements a candidate has from officeholders and other key party insiders, the more likely he is to get the nomination, even if he stumbles in a few primaries and caucuses.

This Wikipedia entry may not be complete, but it gives one a sense of the endorsement derby thus far. Hillary Clinton has the backing of dozens of former and current U.S. Senators and Representatives, as well as a few governors, from all across the country. Bernie Sanders is backed by a number of state legislators, almost all of whom are from his home state of Vermont. Beyond that, a few radio personalities and celebrities (David Crosby! Mia Farrow!) have fallen in for Sanders, as have Ben & Jerry, but that’s kind of it.

This is actually what quite a few Democratic presidential nomination contests have looked like since the mid-20th century. Often, they come down to an idealist who is well loved among white liberals, campus intellectuals, and the media (think Adlai Stephenson in 1960, Gary Hart in 1984, Jerry Brown in 1992, Howard Dean in 2004, etc.) versus a pragmatist who party insiders think is more electable and who is at least tolerable to a broader array of interest groups (think Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, etc.). These contests usually end with the idealist winning a few contests but ultimately conceding to — and campaigning for — the pragmatist. This race is shaping up no differently.

I’m not sure I share Masket’s views on the 1988 and 1992 nomination contests, but that’s a separate issue. Here’s what I’m willing to concede about endorsements: it creates a safety net for HRC that Sanders does not have. And so if Bernie commits a reasonably serious gaffe–say, on the order of Jeb Bush’s “people need to work longer hours” line this week—HRC’s array of elected-official backers will instantly inflate its significance and extend its media shelf-life, and he won’t have the high-profile troops to respond. So until time as he expands his base of support into party elite circles, it would behoove Bernie Sanders to play error-free baseball.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.