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Do political endorsements still matter?

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With the 2022 midterm primaries well underway, the impact of political endorsements—particularly in key Republican contests—is starting to become clear. And with the balance of power in Congress at stake this election cycle, Republicans are keen to muster all of the political leverage available to them to regain power. 

That’s why many observers are watching how endorsements from former President Donald Trump, who—according to some polls—still commands majority support among Republican voters, play out in the ongoing primary races. So far, many Trump-backed candidates have prevailed in House and Senate contests, with a few high-profile losses, The New York Times reports.  

But, in a political environment that, since Trump’s arrival on the scene has been anything but “business as usual,” and as questions surrounding the former president’s political future continue to make headlines, many are left wondering, how much do endorsements matter today? When can they make or break a campaign? 

Costas Panagopoulos, head of Northeastern’s political science department and editor of American Politics Research. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Endorsements can make a difference primarily at the edges, and in very close races,” Costas Panagopoulos, head of Northeastern’s political science department and editor of American Politics Research, says. “Generally speaking, however, there are more fundamental variables affecting election outcomes than endorsements.” 

Panagopoulos says endorsements can be effective during the primaries if the endorser has a loyal following, like Trump’s.  

“But that does not mean that [Trump’s] endorsements will dictate the outcome of an election, and that has already been demonstrated in the context of the 2022 midterms, where [he] has had a mixed record with respect to … races that have already concluded,” Panagopoulos says.

And, he adds, a Trump endorsement can backfire.

“While there are candidates tripping over themselves to align with Donald Trump, others are trying to distance themselves from the former president, and the potential baggage he brings with his endorsements,” Panagopoulos says.

A political outsider who managed to sway Republican voters away from the GOP establishment in the leadup to the 2016 presidential election, Trump remains a central figure in the Republican Party with considerable influence over the spectrum of conservative voters—although experts question to what degree, and how long that influence will last. But his anti-establishment message catapulted him into the mainstream, which might serve to open up the party to new forms of populism, says Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern.

Nick Beauchamp, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

While he’s still aligned with the more populist wing, his anti-establishment cause makes things a little bit trickier, because in some ways he is the establishment now,” Beauchamp says. “That means there may be a little bit more space for voters in the Republican primaries to back candidates that Trump hasn’t endorsed.” 

Indeed, the results from Tuesday’s primary in Georgia saw Trump-backed candidates lose across the board in a resounding rebuke of the former president. David Perdue, backed by Trump in the GOP gubernatorial race in Georgia, was handedly defeated by incumbent Brian Kemp, who was endorsed by former Vice President Mike Pence. The results speak to divisions within the Republican Party that could diminish Trump’s command over conservative voters, Beauchamp says. 

But while a Trump endorsement has been shown to damage the bids of some Republicans, others, such as Ohio’s J.D. Vance, who is the nominee for a Senate seat there—and a former “never-Trumper”—reversed course to embrace Trump.  

“J.D. Vance is a classic case where he was anti-Trump, and then he abased himself to get the Trump endorsement,” Beauchamp says. “It seemed to make a difference in the end.” 

How are endorsements playing out in the Democratic primaries?

“The Democratic side is interesting because, in a way, it’s not just about one figure,” Beauchamp says. “But in a sense it is, too. You have your establishment Democrats, like [Nancy] Pelosi and [Joe] Biden, and to some of your more center-left [political action committees] and interest groups, versus a fairly coherent left-wing insurgency from the [Bernie] Sanders faction.” 

Beauchamp says he currently sees the country as essentially divided into four parties, with two segments representing both the Democratic and Republican parties. 

“For the GOP, there’s the Tump faction—which is the larger group—and the non-Trump faction,” he says. 

While the Democrats appear to have a more diverse field, mainstream center-left figures have a foothold compared to progressives, such as Sanders and—to a degree—Sen. Elizabeth Warren. 

“Each of these groups are becoming more coherent,” Beauchamp says. “What happens when you have a revolt of the edges against the center?”

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