Speaking to reporters after dropping out of the presidential race last week, a deflated Elizabeth Warren admitted that her theory of the Democratic primary was wrong. “I was told at the beginning of this whole undertaking that there are two lanes, a progressive lane that Bernie Sanders is the incumbent for and a moderate lane that Joe Biden is the incumbent for, and there’s no room for anyone else in this,” she said. “I thought that wasn’t right, but evidently it was.”
There were other reasons for Warren’s defeat, of course: sexism, her controversial claims of Native American heritage, and her less than perfect political instincts. A technocratic idealist with a sweeping “plan” for every ill facing the country, she tried to split the difference between the Democratic Party’s two wings, but she ended up being damaged by the perception that she was not much different from Sanders. There was, it seemed, little benefit from being the second-most progressive politician in the 2020 race.
The two-lanes dynamic has been reflected in the power of endorsements this election cycle. In the lefty primary, Warren’s flatlining in the polls coincided with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsing Bernie Sanders, a huge lift for a septuagenarian candidate who had just had a heart attack. In the establishment primary, South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn almost single-handedly revived Joe Biden’s campaign with a well-timed endorsement before South Carolina, which was followed by a stampede of endorsements before Super Tuesday that included those from Biden’s former rivals Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Now Biden is the clear front-runner.
For all the talk of television ads, fundraising, and grassroots organizing, the most important developments in the Democratic primary thus far have all followed major endorsements, which could prove crucial for the rest of the race.
The role of endorsements in presidential primaries has been hotly debated, particularly after Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016 with little backing from party elites. Before 2008, the conventional wisdom was that endorsements didn’t matter all that much. A 2007 Pew Research study found that “political endorsements generally have little impact on voter preferences,” noting that a clear majority of surveyed voters said that even an endorsement from the universally popular Oprah wouldn’t change their vote.
The 2008 publication of The Party Decides, by political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, changed that perception. Looking at presidential primary races between 1980 and 2004, the authors found that eight in 10 were decided by endorsements—when party bigwigs lined up behind a candidate before Iowa, that candidate tended to win. “In our theory, party insiders rally to the candidate of their choice, endowing him or her with endorsements, access to fund-raising networks, and pools of talent and volunteer labor,” the authors wrote.
The last two presidents, it should be noted, did not lead in endorsements before Iowa. In 2008, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were neck and neck in the endorsement race as Obama lagged, while Jeb Bush led the GOP field eight years later (and we all know what happened to him). The “party decides” theory isn’t perfect, as its own authors admit. “In the cases where the party has coordinated on a candidate,” co-author David Karol told Vox’s Andrew Prokop in 2016, “it’s almost always been somebody fairly obvious”: incumbent presidents or vice presidents, or a recent runner-up. He added, “Overall, the book’s findings could be interpreted as making the more prosaic point that when there’s a very clear heir apparent, that person both gets endorsed by the party and tends to end up winning.”
In 2020, endorsements tell a complicated story. Biden has been the clear front-runner in the endorsement primary since entering the race. But Kamala Harris was second—until, that is, she dropped out of the race in December, two months before voting began. Michael Bloomberg, despite being in the race for only three months, quickly accrued dozens of endorsements, mostly from mayors who had benefited from his financial largesse. FiveThirtyEight, which assigns points for endorsements based on their prominence, awarded Warren 103 points—the second most in the primary, behind Biden, who has 586. Warren got nods from a number of important figures, such as former presidential candidate Julian Castro, congresswoman and “squad” member Ayanna Pressley, and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. She was also, along with Klobuchar, endorsed by the editorial board of The New York Times.
The lesson of 2020 is that timing is everything. Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Sanders came just as his momentum had stalled, saving his campaign and marking the beginning of the end of Warren’s. The backing of Ocasio-Cortez, the most popular young politician in the party, was a message to Sanders’s supporters to stay the course and to everyone else that he, not Warren, was the true progressive in the race. “It wasn’t until I heard of a man by the name of Bernie Sanders that I began to question and assert and recognize my inherent value as a human being that deserves health care, housing, education, and a living wage,” she told a huge crowd at a joint rally with Sanders in October.
Biden’s dramatic late surge was powered by endorsements. Clyburn’s helped him run up the scoreboard in South Carolina, showing the party’s elite that he could actually win after a string of embarrassing defeats. South Carolina set off an avalanche: Klobuchar and Buttigieg ended their campaigns, making Biden the last moderate standing; he was given an additional boost when Bloomberg dropped out and endorsed him after a poor showing on Super Tuesday.
These endorsements crowded Warren out and paved the way for her exit. Sanders had monopolized the support of the party’s left wing, and Biden its moderate wing and establishment. The endorsements led to positive media coverage, which then led to a rise in the polls.
What remains to be seen is whether endorsements can shake the left-versus-moderate dynamic that has taken hold, or whether they only serve to reinforce that binary. In the lead-up to Tuesday’s crucial Michigan primary, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris endorsed Biden, while Jesse Jackson endorsed Sanders, which the Sanders campaign hopes will improve his chances with African American voters, who so far have largely swung toward Biden. And while Warren never received an endorsement that changed the course of her campaign, her own endorsement could do just that—if, that is, she decides to make one.