The cold logic behind presidential endorsements

The cold logic behind presidential endorsements

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What follows is a play in two acts.

Act I: When Republicans in the House of Representatives were searching for a new Speaker last fall, Rep. Tom Emmer emerged for a moment as the choice of a majority of the caucus — but Emmer withdrew his nomination prior to a vote of the full House. His withdrawal came on the heels of a social media post by former President Donald Trump stating, “Voting for a Globalist RINO like Tom Emmer would be a tragic mistake!”

Act II: Trump is running to become the GOP nominee for president for a third time and recently received an endorsement from a member of Congress. The endorsement said, in part: “It’s time for Republicans to unite behind our party’s clear frontrunner.” The representative who made that endorsement? Tom Emmer, just three months after being on the receiving end of Trump’s wrath.

What might have motivated Emmer to endorse the person who led the charge against his own election? 

More broadly, what motivates those in Congress to endorse at all? Endorsements have little formal weight in the nomination process; nominations are decided based on the results of primaries and caucuses around the country. If they do not directly effect who becomes the nominee, why bother saying anything at all?

Let’s start with a look at the history of presidential nominations. There was a time when members of Congress could more decisively affect who became the nominee. Nominating conventions were dominated by party insiders and elected officials who chose candidates in infamous “smoke-filled rooms.”

This process abruptly changed following the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Hubert Humphrey was the nominee that year, though he failed to appear on any primary election ballots. The convention was marred by violence outside the convention hall, as Chicago police clashed with protestors who both opposed the nomination process and American involvement in the Vietnam War. Following Humphrey’s defeat in the general election to Richard Nixon, Democrats formed the McGovern–Fraser Commission, which largely created the process we now use for selecting major party nominees. 

Though voters around the country have a say in who becomes the nominee, members of Congress are now a force in what is called the “invisible primary,” the period in election season prior to when the initial primary votes are cast. Scholars have found that these endorsements may matter more to who becomes the nominee than many other measures of support, such as polling, fundraising or discussion in the media. 

Why might these endorsements matter so much in determining who becomes the nominee? It’s important to remember that primary elections are not the same as general elections. Voters in primaries lack an important shortcut in deciding whom to support, because everyone is in the same party. Without an “R” or a “D” next to someone’s name, it can be more challenging to figure out what separates the candidates from each other. Endorsements serve as a way to differentiate candidates and let a voter know who has earned the support of other elected officials. 

This helps explain why members of Congress continue to endorse. Senators and representatives are often treated as “single-minded seekers of reelection” by political scientists, a useful framework for understanding what is happening. Those in Congress want to stay in Congress, and since split-ticket voting is becoming rarer, having a presidential nominee at the top of your party’s ticket who wins the general election increases the likelihood that you will also be reelected. 

That brings us back to Emmer. Prior to the Iowa caucuses in 2016, Trump had not earned a single endorsement from a member of Congress — but he heads into the 2024 primaries with the backing of almost 100 members of the House and 19 senators. With many polls suggesting that Trump is a strong candidate against President Joe Biden in the general election, those in Congress may see endorsing Trump as the best way to stay in office. As the primary season formally begins, we will see if this play turns out to be a history, comedy — or a tragedy.

Michael E. Bednarczuk, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Austin Peay State University. He studies political behavior and public service. 

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