The Limited Power of Trump’s Endorsements
by Andrew Ballard, Hans Hassell, and Michael Heseltine
Donald Trump is back on the campaign trail. The former president has resumed his trademark rallies, possibly laying the groundwork to run for president in 2024. He is also supporting select congressional hopefuls ahead of the 2022 Republican primaries, and advisors in the Trump orbit are debating how to best utilize endorsements as a means to increase his clout ahead of the 2022 midterm elections while also rewarding friends and allies.
At his first post-presidency rally in June 2021, Trump endorsed GOP challenger Max Miller, who is looking to unseat Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-OH), one of the few Republicans who voted in support of Trump’s second impeachment. Trump has also doled out a slew of endorsements in other upcoming races, including former Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running to be Arkansas’ next governor, and Kelly Tshibaka, a challenger to incumbent GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska.
These endorsements may help candidates secure the Republican nomination in the coming primaries, but will support from such a divisive figure ultimately help them in the general election? Our newly-published research on the 2018 midterm elections suggests that receiving the public backing of Trump may ultimately harm candidates in close races – so Republican candidates looking for electoral success may want to think carefully before welcoming Trump's endorsement.
In 2018, Trump used his social media platform to dole out rapid-fire endorsements of congressional candidates running in the midterm elections. During that campaign, he gave out 134 endorsements to 45 congressional candidates on Twitter, and endorsed another 35 congressional candidates at 47 campaign events.
While presidents regularly become involved in midterm elections in an attempt to bolster their party, they usually do not endorse so many candidates on such a prominent national stage. President Obama, for instance, only endorsed 16 congressional candidates in 2010 and only 8 in 2014, and all of those endorsements were given in-person at local political events. In contrast, President Trump gave a majority of his endorsements on a national, highly visible platforms designed to reach a large audience.
In our work, we wanted to learn whether President Trump’s hands-on involvement in the 2018 elections was effective in aiding his party to win additional seats in Congress. We found that Trump did, in part, bolster the candidacies of his fellow Republicans running for Congress. For example, the campaigns that Trump endorsed raised more money from more donors following the president’s endorsement.
However, we discovered that Trump’s endorsements inadvertently helped Democratic candidates more. Democrats were quick to link their Republican opponents to the unpopular president, and many used the president’s endorsements in their own fundraising efforts. Subsequently, Democratic opponents of endorsed Republicans raised more money from more donors immediately following the president’s endorsement of the Republican candidate.
We also found evidence that Trump’s endorsement increased political engagement and mobilization among Democratic voters. An endorsement from Trump increased turnout, particularly in Senate races, but rather than increase an endorsed candidate’s chances of winning, we found that a presidential endorsement in 2018 decreased a candidate’s vote share by over 2.3 percentage points.
Overall, 15 Republican candidates —11 in the House of Representatives, and four in the Senate — lost in the 2018 midterm elections who might have otherwise won. If the goal was to maximize seats, the president’s strategy appears to have failed. Perhaps many GOP candidates were left to say, like defeated Minnesota Republican Congressman Erik Paulsen (who later lost reelection), “Rather than endorse my campaign, I wish the president would endorse my position.”
These findings suggest that high profile presidential interventions may result in unintended backlash. While such a strategy may provide benefits to the endorsed candidate, especially in the primary election, the endorsement of an unpopular president also has the effect of benefiting the endorsed candidate’s opponent. Our research mirrors other work showing that presidential campaign visits can help both same-party candidates and their opponents.
The effect of a Trump endorsement may be different in 2022 insofar as he is no longer president. But in a polarized and nationalized political environment, the decisions of politicos to rally their supporters – even those out of office – may simultaneously rally their opponents. Thus, given that Republicans enter the 2022 midterms as favorites to retake control of the House, and perhaps also the Senate, GOP leaders may want to think strategically about the extent to which they need or want to solicit the former president’s help on the campaign trail.
Of course, coordinating and aligning party priorities with the whims of Donald Trump have proven notoriously difficult, and he is unlikely to back down from his high-profile campaign activities going forward. But if Republican candidates emerge victorious in the upcoming elections, it may be in spite of, rather than because of, Trump’s involvement.