Do Trump endorsements really matter anymore?

Former president Donald Trump looks likely to end up with a pretty mixed record of success for his endorsed 2022 candidates. His backing of Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania over this past weekend is only the latest example of Trump putting his weight behind an unserious candidate with a not-so-great chance of winning. His chosen candidate in the Georgia governor’s race faces tough odds too, and in the Alabama U.S. Senate race Trump had to withdraw an endorsement when it became clear that his candidate was hopeless.

The candidates he has endorsed may well yet win, of course. The next six weeks will tell us a lot. Michigan’s primary on April 23, Nebraska’s on May 10, Pennsylvania’s, Idaho’s, and North Carolina’s on May 17, and then Georgia’s and Alabama’s on May 24 all involve Trump-endorsed candidates in one way or another.

But however those go, it’s likely that Trump’s decision to endorse as widely as he did this year will alter his place in the Republican ecosystem and leave him diminished. To see why, it’s worth thinking about his strategy through the lens of the political science of party factions.

A good place to start is with the work of Daniel DiSalvo of the City College of New York, and especially his superb 2012 book Engines of Change: Party Factions in American Politics, 1868-2010. DiSalvo shows that factionalization allows groups within our two major parties to move the parties by consolidating distinct blocs of like-minded partisans and enabling them to flex their electoral muscles in ways that compel the larger party to take their priorities seriously. One of the ways that factions do this is by endorsing candidates, and so in essence identifying them as belonging to a bloc with some power in the party, both to help voters know whom to support and to help candidates benefit from the larger faction’s strengths.

In that way, endorsing candidates in party primaries around the country can be a sign of strength — helping lone-wolf politicians join together into a powerful intra-party force. But Trump is moving in something like the opposite direction. He does not begin as a weak, lone-wolf politician but as the most powerful figure in the GOP — a figure with whom almost every Republican candidate would like to identify to some degree. He could easily stand apart from the primaries in all these races and let essentially all the candidates claim him and thereby reinforce his dominance of the party. By choosing instead to endorse some candidates over others, he is choosing to narrow his reach and to constrain the meaning of Trumpism within the GOP. He is not going from lonely voice to factional leader but from party leader to factional leader.

This would be true even if all of Trump’s endorsed candidates won their primaries. The range of Republicans willing to say they support Trump is much broader than the victory that any of these endorsed candidates would win, so that in every one of these primaries Trump’s endorsements are creating Trump-friendly Republican voters who are choosing to reject Trump’s endorsed candidates and so to position themselves in some respects outside of Trump’s orbit in the party.

And of course, not all of his endorsed candidates will win. The fact that he is not only making endorsements but doing so (as he does most things) in a careless, narcissistic, and often foolish way means he will create even more distance between himself and Republicans focused on winning hard races.

You can see this even within Trump’s inner circle already. As Zachary Petrizzo at the Daily Beast reported this weekend, Trump’s endorsement of Dr. Oz led some prominent pro-Trump voices to break ranks publicly.

It’s even more evident in the broader circle of party operatives. As Salena Zito reports at the Washington Examiner, lots of prominent Pennsylvania Republicans openly expressed their dismay at Trump’s choice. This bit from her article gets at this point perfectly:

“President Trump was very out of sync in picking Oz,” said Dave Ball, chairman of the Washington County Republican Party. “I’d like to know who it is who lives in Pennsylvania that knows the voters well told Trump to pick Oz.”

“I think that President Trump very, very seldom does anything that’s not thought out and doesn’t have a very reasoned and logical basis, but, for whatever reason, in this particular instance, he chose to ignore all of that and endorse Oz,” he said.

Ball says he fielded calls all day from conservatives unhappy with the former president’s decision. They complained about the reasons Trump gave — noting his celebrity status, Harvard credentials, New York Times bestseller status, and praise Oz had for the former president’s health. “People have been calling me all day and asking, ‘What the hell was he thinking?’”

Of course, no one should have been surprised at Trump’s behavior. But the fact that people who are clearly reluctant to criticize him are openly doing so here is worth noticing.

Trump’s endorsements will tend to create more Republicans who aren’t anti-Trump and yet don’t feel like they are in his camp. And that includes not only voters and party officials but also politicians who will feel they don’t owe him anything. As a practical matter, there should already be many such politicians, since many Republican members of Congress ran ahead of Trump in their own states and districts. But a lot of them still feel like they have been working in his party over these past six years, and can’t afford to really get crosswise with him. Yet if Trump gets crosswise with them and they still win, they would feel much less compelled to keep chasing him.

Consider again the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race. David McCormick, the more establishment-type Republican in the race, has done everything he could to identify with Trumpist themes and priorities (including sometimes gesturing supportively toward Trump’s lies about the last election). Until this past weekend, he had the support of several Trump loyalists, including Stephen Miller and Hope Hicks. Had Trump stayed out of that race, he could have claimed that both leading candidates were Trump people and that whoever won was a victory for him. The same is true in most of the races in which he has endorsed candidates. But by choosing one office-seeker to endorse, let alone choosing a likely loser, Trump has made non-Trump Republicans out of the other candidates and their voters. This increases the number of non-Trump Republicans who aren’t in the explicitly anti-Trump wing of the party, creates a lot of politicians who no longer imagine he has some magical hold on their voters, and gets a lot more voters accustomed to thinking of themselves as outside of his ambit.

All of this could make a big difference to potential Republican presidential contenders in 2024 as well. A number of them are clearly trying to figure out if running would be feasible with Trump in the race. Could someone run against him and win? Could someone run while Trump is in the race but not explicitly run against him? Where are the boundaries?

That last question should remind Republican politicians of 2016, and of Trump’s own rise. Throughout the Obama era, a lot of Republican politicians acted like mimes trapped within invisible walls: They behaved as though there were strict ideological rules about what could be said to Republican voters about spending, taxes, entitlements, foreign policy, the role of government, and many other issues — as if the party’s base demanded strict orthodoxy to a kind of libertarian-infused caricature of Reaganism. Trump wasn’t even aware of these taboos, and so blasted right through them in 2016, and it turned out the party’s voters didn’t really care about them after all. Republican politicians were liberated from those constraints (though a fair number still don’t realize that), but they were so confused by it all that they just adopted a new set of constraints involving Trump himself. Now there were things you could never say to Republican voters about Donald Trump. Even the 2020 election didn’t really change that, so the working assumption in Republican politics is that the GOP primary electorate demands absolute, groveling fidelity to the guy who lost the party the last election. But what if it turns out that this is no more true than the last supposedly binding orthodoxy?

You would think that Donald Trump would want to avoid asking that question, and testing the strength of his hold on the party. Yet it is Trump who has launched this test, pursuing a strategy likely to weaken his position and standing in the GOP, almost regardless of how the primaries turn out.

None of that means that Trump is done for, needless to say. But it suggests that he remains his own worst enemy, and in ways that threaten to invite greater and more capable enemies still.

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