Primary Elections: The Value of an Endorsement

Primary election

By Chapman Rackaway of the University of West Georgia

How involved should political party leaders get in primary elections? Should a President endorse a primary candidate, despite standards of public party neutrality? Party organizations were once used to determine nominees internally in caucuses or conventions, with elite leaders choosing nominees they believed best represented the party. Primary elections disrupted that process. Now the general public, even those not loyal to the party, could help choose nominees. Outsiders such as, say, Donald Trump, can contest and even win party nominations over the wishes of party leaders. In the Primary Era, party leaders and elites have generally chosen to remain publicly silent (if often supportive behind-the-scenes) during nomination contests. The involvement of President Donald Trump in Republican primaries this year is thus an important development.

Whether it’s a prominent celebrity, organized interest, or popular elected official, candidates love to get endorsements. The value of an endorsement might seem minimal, but sometimes they matter. Not all endorsements are created equal. Primary elections put parties in a difficult place: party elites, focused on general election success, value electability. When party leaders do have primary influence, as Democrats do in Presidential nominations with superdelegates, losing candidates complain of the system being “rigged” against them. Bernard Sanders’ supporters made that very complaint after his 2016 loss to Hillary Clinton. Party organizations can struggle to unify behind nominees after divisive primaries, making the safest option in primaries non-participation.

No sitting President has before endorsed candidates in party primaries. But Donald Trump’s involvement in two gubernatorial primaries – Georgia and Kansas – show us the power of the endorsement and what it means for the parties.

In Georgia, a five-way open contest for the open Republican nomination produced no majority winner and a July runoff between Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Cagle would normally have been considered a near-lock to succeed in the runoff against Kemp. Cagle only needed to activate the same 39% of voters and win another eleven percent among supporters of the also-rans to secure the nomination. Cagle appeared in polls to be well ahead of Kemp when one of the also-ran candidates, Clay Tippins, released a recording where Cagle admitted to playing politics with another candidate. Cagle had supported a bill he would normally not to force the candidates running from state Senate seats into a difficult vote. The Tippins recording hurt Cagle, bringing his lead down to single digits. When Trump endorsed Kemp a week before the vote, though, he surged from a near-tie to an almost forty percentage point victory.

Leading candidates in runoffs rarely lose, about as rarely as party leaders publicly involve themselves in a race. As Hans Hassell shows in “Party Control of Party Primaries: Party Influence in Nominations for the US Senate” (2015), party leadership tend to get their favored candidates nominated but do so behind-the-scenes. Trump not only endorsed a candidate but supported the candidate seen as less-comfortable with Georgia’s GOP leadership.

A day before the Kansas primary, the President endorsed another sitting Secretary of State seeking a governorship, Kris Kobach. Trump’s endorsement of Kobach was expected because Kobach and Trump have a history of mutual support. Kobach was an early supporter of Trump’s 2016 campaign, served on the President’s ill-fated Election Assistance Commission, was under consideration for a cabinet post, and has had Donald Trump Jr. host fundraisers for him.

Trump’s Kobach endorsement was noteworthy because it was given where an incumbent governor was running. Not only did Trump violate the norm against elected and party leadership insinuating themselves in primaries, Trump again went against established party leadership.

Trump’s support didn’t have the massive impact on Kobach’s vote total as it appeared to have with Kemp. Pro-Trump voters were likely already aligned with Kobach, and he won a narrow victory over incumbent Jeff Colyer.

Regardless of the outcome of the Kansas gubernatorial primary, the result for parties is the same: party elected officials are now actively engaged in primary endorsements. The norm of party neutrality in primaries has been violated. Candidates will see Kemp’s and Kobach’s success and want the President or another high-ranking party leader to endorse them in their primary. The idea of a party that waits for the public to decide their nominee and then rallies to support that nominee has been retired. Trump’s precedent may open the door to more primary endorsements, changing the role of the party in nomination contests irretrievably. How will parties respond to the increased demand for their favor during their primaries? The answer could have long-reaching implications for future primaries.

About the author: Chapman Rackaway serves the University of West Georgia as Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science where he teaches classes in Political Parties, Political Campaign Management, Interest Groups and Lobbying, and Campaign Finance. You can also find Rackaway on Twitter and his website.

Blue Wave, Red Wave; What Wave? No Wave

RedWaveBlueWave

By Chapman Rackaway of the University of West Georgia

Political scientists and pundits alike face a contradictory challenge in the concept of the “wave” election. Journalists use the term commonly, and 2018 is no exception. The hashtag #bluewave is a constant presence on political Twitter feeds, and a search reveals hundreds of news articles discussing the likelihood of Democrats benefitting from just such as wave. What constitutes a wave election is a complicated matter, however, and needs some definition. Is a wave election simply when one party does appreciably better than the other? Is a specific seat gain enough to call an election a wave? Insinuated in tweets and stories about a 2018 blue wave is a sense that voters nationwide have gravitated intentionally towards Democrats with the specific goal of resisting the presidency of Donald Trump. Political science can help us bust that myth, and see that national intent during midterm elections does not exist. Democrats may do very well nationwide in 2018, but that does not mean that a national wave of support is why Democrats look to succeed.

We know some basic evidence from the discipline that puts the wave talk in perspective. First of all, incumbents are rarely vulnerable, but Jacobson (2015) shows that the incumbency advantage has been eroding recently. Still the best opportunity for Democrats to make gains in Congress or in state legislative seats is for a large number of Republicans to retire. In Congress, at least, Democrats can rely on a higher level of Republican exposure than in the last six election cycles. A total of forty-four GOP incumbents are retiring from Congress, the highest since 31 left before the 2012 elections. And Democrats have a much lower exposure rate in the House, with only twenty departures as of early August.

The Senate also looks good for Democrats, with the need to take just two Republican seats away to wrest majority control. Of the seven races listed as “toss-up” by RealClearPolitics, four are held by Democrats while three are Republican. A tied chamber is certainly possible but the Senate seems “wave-proof” in 2018.

State legislative races also can factor into a “wave” election, and again Republicans have a high level of exposure. Republicans hold majorities in 31 state legislatures, compared with fourteen Democrat-controlled assemblies and four are split between the two parties (Nebraska’s non-partisan legislature is not included here). Governing magazine rates ten GOP chambers as leaning or tossups, and Democrats have seven chambers leaning with no tossups.

Democrats have a target-rich environment, and have performed very well in special elections which Smith and Brunell (2010) show yield some predictive power. Turnout for adherents to the in-power party tends to drop off in midterm elections, too, which should hurt Republicans. Previously local-first races into a nationalized environment (see Abramowitz and Webster 2016). Add a divisive President with a lower approval rating than other recent Presidents at their midterm to mobilize Democrats, and together, the anecdotes suggest the components of a wave.

But one important factor suggests that the Democratic wave will not happen: negative partisanship. We know that the nature of partisan identification has been changing for some time, and while support for one’s own party has remained stable, the disapproval voters feel towards the opposing party has increased. Independents, long considered the swinging gate in between the parties upon which elections have hinged, are the key to Democratic success and the least likely group to vote. Calling an election a wave must mean that there is a surge of support behind it, and those support surges do not happen in the current partisan environment. Instead of getting a boost from independent and leaning-partisan swing voters who cast ballots for the opposing party in the previous election, partisans today must do a better job of mobilizing their base.

For Democrats to approximate a wave in 2018, they need to register more voters, and across the country most state-level registrations of new voters has been flat. A wave of anti-Trump resistance will not flood former leaning-Republican voters to embrace local-level Democratic candidates. Republicans do not trust Democrats (and vice versa) while independents are unreliable saviors. If Democrats do have great success in the 2018 elections, it will come instead from a methodical, state-by-state process of registering and mobilizing base Democratic voters.

Calling successful elections “waves” does a disservice to the voting public, advancing a narrative of the electorate’s motivations that does not sync with their real preferences and behaviors. Wins happen in politics, waves stay on the water.

About the author: Chapman Rackaway serves the University of West Georgia as Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science where he teaches classes in Political Parties, Political Campaign Management, Interest Groups and Lobbying, and Campaign Finance. You can also find Rackaway on Twitter and his website.