Academic journal article The New England Journal of Political Science

The Party Stands Aside: Elite Party Actor Endorsements during Presidential Primary and Caucus Voting, 2004-2016

Academic journal article The New England Journal of Political Science

The Party Stands Aside: Elite Party Actor Endorsements during Presidential Primary and Caucus Voting, 2004-2016

Article excerpt

Introduction

Strategic considerations are often a critical factor in would-be candidates' decisions about whether or not to run for office (Jacobson 2004, Lawless 2012). A potential candidate may ask herself if she is likely to win, if her party is likely to hold a majority after the election, or if running will advance or hamper long-term career goals. An incumbent may ask himself if another term is likely to bring a coveted committee chairmanship, or if a strong candidate is likely to challenge him. Similarly, the men and women who would be president consider not just their own high opinion of their own skills but also their likelihood of winning their party's nomination and the general election in determining whether or not to run. Candidates are not alone in considering the presidential landscape in strategic terms. Elite party actors-elected officials, former officeholders, fundraisers, interest group leaders, and other influential individuals-also evaluate potential presidential candidates, their issue positions, and their electoral viability. These actors, whose policy priorities, electoral fortunes, and other political or career goals are affected dramatically by whether their party's candidate becomes president, and how that president performs in office, evaluate these candidates with an eye toward both their likelihood of winning the election, and their acceptability on key issue positions (Cohen et al. 2008, Bernstein 2004). A candidate who is in perfect alignment with these actors' policy preferences but unlikely to win the general election because of a history of controversy, scandal, or inflammatory statements, for instance, would be less likely to win these actors' support than a candidate who is only partially aligned with elite party actors' policy preferences but strikes them as very likely to win both the nomination and general election.

"Elite party actors," of course, are not a monolith. Different individuals will have different policy priorities and different evaluations of what makes a candidate electable or not. One person's unhinged rhetorical bomb-thrower is another's plain-speaking truth-teller. Taken in the aggregate, however, we can learn about elite actors' considerations of candidates for their party's presidential nomination from their decisions about which candidates to endorse publicly and when they choose to announce these endorsements. In this paper, we consider whether these endorsement decisions are affected by the context of the general election, by which party elites are associated with, or the idiosyncrasies of a given election cycle. On the first point, we are interested in the extent to which the nature of the general election appears to affect elite party actors' endorsement decisions during the primary contest. Specifically, do elite party actors behave, in the aggregate, differently when their party's eventual nominee will be facing an incumbent president than they do when an incumbent president is barred by the Twenty-Second Amendment from seeking another term?

Second, are there differences between the parties in how party actors evaluate and line up behind candidates for their nomination? While political folk wisdom about Republicans' tendency to always nominate the candidate "next in line" for the nomination has little empirical support (Bernstein 2013, Kilgore 2009), research into nomination contests has found that endorsements have been a stronger predictor of nomination contest outcomes for Republicans than Democrats (Steger 2007). Freeman (1986) argues that each party also possesses a distinct political culture, with power flowing upward from the grassroots in the Democratic Party and downward from party leaders in the Republican Party. Do the patterns of endorsements among Republican officeholders differ from those of Democratic elites along these lines? Are Democratic officeholders more scattered in their support for candidates, or more likely to wait to endorse until the voters have had a chance to express their preferences among the contenders? …

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