Gauging Trump’s electoral influence
Updated: Jun 9, 2022
Just as he did when he was in the White House, former president Donald Trump is breaking political norms. Ex-presidents tend to limit their involvement in election campaigns, particularly in primaries and in non-federal elections. But Trump has endorsed over a hundred candidates for Congress and dozens running for state-wide office, state legislatures, and even local office.
In a previous post, I suggested that Trump was doing this primarily to boost his own reputation. But do his endorsements actually affect election outcomes?
With the recent round of primary elections, we now have enough data to suggest that Trump’s endorsements are not quite as valuable as the former president would like to believe. Consider:
The vast majority of Trump’s endorsements (which you can find here, here, and here) are “safe bets,” given to incumbents running unopposed or in lopsided primary races, often when it’s all-but-obvious that the endorsee will win. Trump may use these wins to puff up his record, but it’s a record that is about as meaningless as a boxer’s lopsided win-loss score.
Several candidates whom Trump endorsed have lost, including Janice McGeachin (who lost against the incumbent Idaho governor), Charles Herbster (running for governor of Nebraska, who lost to Jim Pillen), North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, and Texas House candidate Susan Wright (who lost in a runoff last year against Jake Ellzey).
As David Byler suggested in a recent tweet, damaged candidates cannot be saved by a Trump endorsement. Madison Cawthorn, who had been subject to a barrage of negative media coverage for various personal indiscretions, still lost despite Trump’s last minute statement of support. Another recipient of a Trump endorsement, Sean Parnell, dropped out of the Pennsylvania Senate primary following allegations of spousal and child abuse.
More generally, notes Jonathan Bernstein, Trump-endorsed candidates who face more than one opponent tend to get about a third of the GOP primary vote. That’s not bad, but as Bernstein writes, “big-time kingmakers have more clout than that.”
Bernstein also makes a good point that some candidates who have won close races probably benefited at least as much from the support of others, including Fox News commentators, big donors, and GOP groups like Club for Growth.
These observations aside, however, Trump's endorsements do seem to be influential in certain circumstances. For one thing, in multi-candidate, winner-take-all races with no clear front runner, a Trump endorsement can deliver a crucial number of votes. Survey trends over time show that his endorsements in the Ohio and, to a lesser extent, Pennsylvania Senate primary elections came shortly before his preferred candidates got a bump in the polls. (As of this writing, it’s not yet known whether Mehmet Oz, whom Trump endorsed for the Pennsylvania primary, actually won.)
In addition, Trump’s support seems to give lesser-known and/or outsider candidates a valuable (if not winning) boost. Both Vance and Oz were novices with thin connections to their states. Bo Hines won his North Carolina House primary in spite of local opposition and having only just moved to the district. Though he had deeper roots in West Virginia (and an endorsement from the state’s Republican governor), Rep. David McKinley still lost to fellow incumbent Alex Mooney (who also benefited by avoiding the kind of pork-barrel politics that conservatives disdain).
Finally, it’s important to note one other way that Trump has influenced the 2022 elections. By using (the promise of) endorsements, along with behind-the-scenes machinations, Trump has occasionally been able to determine who runs for election and for what office. For example:
Republicans have switched from campaigning for one office to running for another because of Trump. For instance, Vernon Jones planned to run for governor of Georgia until Trump persuaded him to run for a House seat instead. (Trump may also have convinced Patrick Witt to drop out of his race for that congressional seat and run for state insurance and fire safety commissioner instead, in order to clear the field for Jones.)
Trump deterred at least one would-be candidate from running in a primary: Bernie Moreno, who abandoned his bid for Ohio’s Senate seat in order to avoid further splitting the pro-Trump vote.
A number of GOP incumbents opted not to run for reelection after being challenged by a Trump-endorsed candidate, including as Rep. Fred Upton (MI), Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (OH), and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.
The take-away? Trump cannot magically bestow a GOP nomination on someone simply by endorsing that person; in most cases, his endorsement has been either unneeded or ineffective. But certain candidates in certain races can benefit from the ex-president’s support -- and as long as Republicans think that his support matters, Trump will be able to help shape his party's electoral playing field.