Called “the future of our party” by Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) might be one of the most sought-after political endorsements in the 2020 presidential race.
Along with fellow “Squad” member Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ocasio-Cortez officially put her weight behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Saturday.
“I’m proud to say that the only reason that I had any hope in launching a long-shot campaign for Congress is because Bernie Sanders proved that you can run a grassroots campaign and win in an America where we almost thought it wasn’t possible,” Ocasio-Cortez said at the Sanders rally in New York.
But endorsements are looking a little different this year—and they may not even hold the same importance as they once did among a Democratic party that has shown little consensus thus far.
“Lots of leaders aren’t endorsing, and no candidate is a clear frontrunner,” John Sides, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, told Fortune. “And a few endorsements, even by high-profile Democrats like AOC and Omar, won’t change that picture.”
And while people tend to think an endorsement translates directly to support in the primaries, that isn’t always the case, Georgetown University professor Hans Noel and co-author of oft-cited 2008 book The Party Decides said.
“There are a lot of candidates running,” Noel told Fortune. “But if one candidate has the overwhelming support of the party, then money, resources, and even votes might flow to that candidate.”
Co-author David Karol points to George W. Bush and Al Gore’s 2000 campaigns and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign as examples of when endorsements collectively sent voters a clear signal that a candidate is the party’s choice. Endorsements from these elites served to unify the party, he said, increasing the likelihood that a favored candidate would become the party’s nominee.
“Endorsements have always been a useful barometer of where party elites stand and how much consensus exists within the party,” Sides said. “In many years, although not always, candidates who successfully build support among party elites end up winning the nomination. In years without a consensus, however, the field is much more wide-open.”
But in 2016, something different happened.
Donald Trump Breaks the Mold
Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee with the fewest primary endorsements of any candidate since 1980—and didn’t even receive his first endorsement until three weeks after the Iowa caucuses. He also failed to get a single endorsement from a sitting Republican governor or member of Congress until after winning the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
Trump’s win bucked the trend the authors of The Party Decides had observed in elections throughout the previous three decades. Yet the 2016 election may offer a lesson of what may be to come in 2020.
The Republican field was crowded and party elites failed to coalesce around a single candidate leading up to Election Day—some influential individuals did ultimately endorse more establishment candidates like Jeb Bush, but many others chose to sit the cycle out.
“It may seem given Trump’s success in the 2016 Republican primary that endorsements by party elites are no longer relevant, but I think that is hasty,” Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science and public policy at UCLA said. “As a signal of either who has or is gaining momentum or as a signal of who elites think can do the job well, these signals are valuable to donors and voters.”
This time around, no single candidate has succeeded in getting the lion’s share of endorsements thus far in the 2020 presidential race.
Who Is Winning the Endorsement Race in 2020
According to a tally from members of Congress and governors by Politico, former Vice President Joe Biden has the greatest number of endorsements with 23. But he is closely followed by two other candidates whose polling has not matched his: Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), with 17 and 13 endorsements, respectively.
Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who by some counts is closing in on Biden in the polls, has only eight endorsements, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has just 5.
“Many potential endorsers are hanging back, and those who do back a candidate are divided, sending no clear signal,” Karol told Fortune.
Marty Cohen, political science professor at James Madison University and co-author of The Party Decides, has also picked up on the slowness with which endorsements are trickling in, explaining that he sees this as evidence that elites are very wary of being wrong in who they endorse.
“It’s such a fluid process and a large field that nobody wants to endorse someone publicly and have them drop out a month later,” Cohen said. “Leaders should lead and I still think they have the capacity to do so if they would be less cautious.”
Why Endorsements Still Matter
It’s not that the endorsements we are seeing so far in this presidential race don’t matter or are waning in importance, says Cohen, it’s that they don’t pack much of a punch and might have been “a bit overrated.”
Endorsements like Ocasio-Cortez’s of Sanders are not surprising, he said, considering their shared ideologies.
“If one of the so-called moderates had received these endorsements I think they would have been seen as a bigger deal,” Cohen said. “Likewise, if Sanders were to have gotten an endorsement from a leading establishment moderate, that would have been counter-intuitive and therefore maybe a more powerful signal that Sanders might be able to unite the party, giving his candidacy a bigger boost.”
Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, added that Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement is obviously sought after, but he’s not convinced that it will do much for Sanders.
“She conveys credibility on the left, but Sanders doesn’t really need any more such credibility,” he said. “A more powerful signal, potentially, would be if rank-and-file Democrats lined up behind his candidacy, which really hasn’t happened.”
Ultimately, in-group endorsements matter far less, so until we see a moderate like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) endorsing Sanders, for example, this election could very well throw us some surprises like those we saw in 2016.
Key Political Endorsements in the 2020 Democratic Race So Far
Former Vice President Joe Biden
- Delaware Gov. John Carney (D)
- Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.)
- Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.)
- Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.)
- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)
- Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.)
- Sen. Bob Casey, (D-Penn.)
- Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.)
- Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.)
- Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.)
- Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Penn.)
- Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Penn.)
- Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.)
- Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.)
- Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas)
- Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.)
- Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D)
- Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas)
- Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.)
- Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.)
- Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.)
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)
- California Gov. Gavin Newsom
- Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Nanette Barragan (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Al Green (D-Texas)
- Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.)
- Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.)
- Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.)
- Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.)
- Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.)
- Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.)
- Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Miss.)
- Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio)
- Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.)
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)
- New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D)
- Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.)
- Rep. Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-N.J.)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
- Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
- Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.)
- Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.)
- Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.)
- Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.)
- Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.)
- Rep. Andy Levin (D-Miss.)
- Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.)
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas
- Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.)
- Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas)
- Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.)
- Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.)
- Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
- Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
- Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.)
- Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)
- Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)
- Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
- Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D)
- Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.)
- Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.)
- Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.)
Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro
- Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas)
- Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas)
- Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas)
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana
- Rep. Donald Beyer (D-Va.)
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