Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Kingmakers or Cheerleaders? Party Power and the Causal Effects of Endorsements

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Kingmakers or Cheerleaders? Party Power and the Causal Effects of Endorsements

Article excerpt

Endorsements are a key tool allowing party elites to exert control over the selection of nominees. Although American party leaders could once directly pick nominees through secretive caucuses or tightly managed conventions, their power to determine party nominations in the age of the direct primary is negligible unless they have a way to actually influence primary voters. Partisan endorsements, by which partisan elites communicate their preferences directly to donors, political activists, the media, and voters in general, are a central means by which this influence occurs. Parties do play other roles- by recruiting or discouraging candidates, and by shepherding wealthy donors or energetic volunteers toward their favored candidates-but a formal endorsement remains the strongest signal that a party can send. These endorsements must exert a real impact on candidates' electoral fortunes if parties are to be kingmakers in American politics.

The influence of prominent endorsements is often taken for granted by political observers, but just how much power do such messages have? If their power over voters is weak, then our political system is essentially a candidate-centered one. The candidate's own skills and appeals would be determinative of both capturing the endorsement and winning the primary, with party leaders essentially relegated to the role of cheerleaders, rooting on strong candidates. In contrast, if endorsements are highly influential over voters, then party leaders may assume some (if not all) of the authority they once had in the age of the party machines, determining which candidates bear the party mantel and which do not.

In this paper, we take advantage of two unique datasets to offer robust tests of the power of endorsements in party contests. Specifically, we look at the responses by California's Democratic Party to Proposition 14, the 2010 initiative that created a top-two open primary system in that state. The top-two system essentially deprived parties of the power of nominations, placing voters of both parties-or of no party at all-in charge of picking candidates in the June primary. Both major parties, seeking to focus their supporters on a single candidate who would advance to the top-two runoff, responded by creating a robust system of party endorsements. We obtained access to the internal votes by activists that determined the Democratic endorsements, allowing us to see which candidates just barely won or lost the endorsement. We supplement our analysis of endorsements and 2012 election returns with an original survey experiment put in the field during that contest. Although the opportunities to study endorsements in this single election are unique, there is no reason to believe that the impact of endorsements on voter behavior in it will be idiosyncratic. Importantly, even though the change in the primary system increased the incentives of strategic party organizations to make endorsements, it did not notably change the reasons why voters might rely on parties to guide them through the process.

We look at the influence of these endorsements in two ways. First, we conduct a survey of 1,000 Californians and present them with a hypothetical ballot for a state Assembly race, randomizing the Democratic Party's endorsement between two Democratic contenders. Second, we perform a regression discontinuity (RD) analysis of the results of the 2012 June primary election, using the results of internal party endorsement votes to control for partisan support for the candidates. Combined, these approaches show that the impact of a party endorsement is dramatically smaller than it might seem at first glance, but still substantively and statistically significant. Our two analyses yield estimates of the causal effect of an endorsement that range from 7 to 15 percentage points of the vote, although this effect varies considerably based on the attributes of the candidate and of voters. In sum, we draw on a constellation of evidence to detect the important but limited influence that parties exert on the selection of candidates. …

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