Updated: Jul 28, 2021
With Trump dangling endorsement in front of panic-stricken Republican candidate,s I want to go back to a 2020 publication from the American Political Science Association's Legislative Studies Quarterly, Be Careful What You Wish For: The Impacts of President Trump’s Midterm Endorsements. The authors, Andrew Ballard (American University), Hans Hassell (Florida State University) and Michael Heseltine (American University) analyzed the effects of Trump’s endorsements on House and Senate elections in 2018. In their abstract, they noted that previous work has argued that presidential endorsements are usually positive or, at worst, neutral for the recipient candidates. They found that Trump was more likely to endorse candidates with a higher pre-endorsement likelihood of winning than to endorse candidates in more competitive races, suggesting the president used endorsements strategically both to try and help Republican candidates win and to boost his reputation for helping candidates win. However, while Trump’s public endorsements provided a financial boost to endorsed candidates, they also increased donor support of opposing candidates and were ultimately detrimental to candidates’ vote shares and likelihood of winning. Their work provides evidence for potential backlash effects among opposition voters in response to presidential endorsement in a nationalized political environment and expands our understanding of the impact of presidential campaigning in congressional midterm elections.
Yesterday, the 3 professors, in an update, wrote that the endorsements Trump has given so far in the 2022 election cycle "may help candidates secure the Republican nomination in the coming primaries, but will support from such a divisive figure ultimately help them in the general election? Our newly-published research on the 2018 midterm elections suggests that receiving the public backing of Trump may ultimately harm candidates in close races-- so Republican candidates looking for electoral success may want to think carefully before welcoming Trump's endorsement."
In 2018, Trump used his social media platform to dole out rapid-fire endorsements of congressional candidates running in the midterm elections. During that campaign, he gave out 134 endorsements to 45 congressional candidates on Twitter, and endorsed another 35 congressional candidates at 47 campaign events.
While presidents regularly become involved in midterm elections in an attempt to bolster their party, they usually do not endorse so many candidates on such a prominent national stage. President Obama, for instance, only endorsed 16 congressional candidates in 2010 and only 8 in 2014, and all of those endorsements were given in-person at local political events. In contrast, President Trump gave a majority of his endorsements on a national, highly visible platforms designed to reach a large audience.
In our work, we wanted to learn whether President Trump’s hands-on involvement in the 2018 elections was effective in aiding his party to win additional seats in Congress. We found that Trump did, in part, bolster the candidacies of his fellow Republicans running for Congress. For example, the campaigns that Trump endorsed raised more money from more donors following the president’s endorsement.
However, we discovered that Trump’s endorsements inadvertently helped Democratic candidates more. Democrats were quick to link their Republican opponents to the unpopular president, and many used the president’s endorsements in their own fundraising efforts. Subsequently, Democratic opponents of endorsed Republicans raised more money from more donors immediately following the president’s endorsement of the Republican candidate.
We also found evidence that Trump’s endorsement increased political engagement and mobilization among Democratic voters. An endorsement from Trump increased turnout, particularly in Senate races, but rather than increase an endorsed candidate’s chances of winning, we found that a presidential endorsement in 2018 decreased a candidate’s vote share by over 2.3 percentage points.
Overall, 15 Republican candidates-- 11 in the House of Representatives, and four in the Senate-- lost in the 2018 midterm elections who might have otherwise won. If the goal was to maximize seats, the president’s strategy appears to have failed. Perhaps many GOP candidates were left to say, like defeated Minnesota Republican Congressman Erik Paulsen (who later lost reelection), “Rather than endorse my campaign, I wish the president would endorse my position.”
These findings suggest that high profile presidential interventions may result in unintended backlash. While such a strategy may provide benefits to the endorsed candidate, especially in the primary election, the endorsement of an unpopular president also has the effect of benefiting the endorsed candidate’s opponent. Our research mirrors other work showing that presidential campaign visits can help both same-party candidates and their opponents.
The effect of a Trump endorsement may be different in 2022 insofar as he is no longer president. But in a polarized and nationalized political environment, the decisions of politicos to rally their supporters-- even those out of office-- may simultaneously rally their opponents. Thus, given that Republicans enter the 2022 midterms as favorites to retake control of the House, and perhaps also the Senate, GOP leaders may want to think strategically about the extent to which they need or want to solicit the former president’s help on the campaign trail.
Of course, coordinating and aligning party priorities with the whims of Donald Trump have proven notoriously difficult, and he is unlikely to back down from his high-profile campaign activities going forward. But if Republican candidates emerge victorious in the upcoming elections, it may be in spite of, rather than because of, Trump’s involvement.
The University of Chicago's esteemed polling service, NORC, released a new poll through the Associated Press this morning that indicates the trap Republicans in Congress have created for themselves. Their base loves Trump, while the country as a whole feels very much the opposite. Most Republicans, reported the pollsters, want Trump to have at least some influence on the direction of the Republican Party, "though fewer than half are optimistic about the party’s future. Republicans are also sour on the direction of the country, the state of politics, and the state of democracy. Overall, 63% of Americans are pessimistic about the state of politics, including 78% of Republicans. While most Americans think Trump should have no influence in the direction of the Republican Party, 47% of Republicans think that Trump should continue to wield a lot of influence on the direction of the Republican Party."
Trump is very popular among Republicans (76%) but very unpopular among Democrats (91%) and Independents (58%). Overall, Americans have a 60% unfavorable view of Trump with just 37% holding a favorable view. But no other Republican is anywhere in sight who could fill his shoes to the satisfaction of the party base-- which is why so many political scientists have been noting that the GOP has morphed in a cult of personality. The Republicans polled by NORC all fell incredibly short as potential leaders:
And on most of the issues America is most concerned with, voters polled trust the Democrats to do a better job than the congressional Republicans-- and by very wide margins. Trump's self-serving increasingly crackpot pronouncements are helping Democratic candidates, not Republicans.
UPDATE: Trump's Kiss Of Death In TX-06
With no Democrat in the Texas runoff, Trump was pushing hard for his endorsed candidate, Susan Wright, a far right kook and COVID-widow of the anti-mask dead incumbent. She was heavily favored to win Tuesday but was beaten by state Rep. Jake Ellzey, 20,762 (53.24%) to 18,232 (46.76%), at least in part because Democrats and independents were eager to vote against Trump and his candidate. Trump's endorsement ended Susan Wright's chance to get into Congress. That's the good news. The bad news is that Ellzey will be as horrible a member as she would have been. Republicans need to be very wary when soliciting an endorsement from someone has widely loathed as Trump.