Why It Matters That Trump Is Leading The 2024 Primary Field In Endorsements

Today, FiveThirtyEight is launching our endorsement tracker for the 2024 Republican presidential primary. And while it’s early in the primary season, former President Donald Trump currently has a commanding lead.

As we did for Democrats and Republicans in 2016 and Democrats in 2020, we’re tracking whom Republican politicians are supporting in the presidential race, giving more weight, or “points,” to endorsements from more prominent politicians. We encourage you to read our full methodology. As of Tuesday at 5 p.m. Eastern, Trump has 218 points, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has 11. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence have three points each.

Why track endorsements? After all, the last time Republicans had a presidential primary without an incumbent, the candidates who led the endorsement race were no match for the one preferred by voters. Trump’s victory in 2016 seemed like a clear repudiation of the “party decides” hypothesis of presidential primaries: that the candidate with the most support from party elites tends to win the nomination.

But 2016 was just one data point. Historically, endorsements have proven pretty predictive of who wins presidential nominating contests. Since the modern primary era began in 1972, there have been 17 Democratic or Republican primary fights that did not feature an incumbent president. The candidate with the most endorsement points on the day before the Iowa caucuses won 11. That’s a better track record than polls have at the same point in the election: Since 1972, the leader in national polls on the day before Iowa has won the nomination just 10 out of 17 times.

Endorsements are about as predictive of primaries as polls

Leaders in FiveThirtyEight endorsement points and national primary polls on the day before the Iowa caucuses, and the eventual nominees, in every Democratic and Republican presidential primary without an incumbent since 1972

Year Party Nominee Endorsement Leader Polling Leader
1972 D George McGovern Ed Muskie Ed Muskie
1976 D Jimmy Carter Lloyd Bentsen George Wallace
1980 R Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan Ronald Reagan
1984 D Walter Mondale Walter Mondale Walter Mondale
1988 D Michael Dukakis Dick Gephardt Gary Hart
1988 R George H.W. Bush George H.W. Bush George H.W. Bush
1992 D Bill Clinton Bill Clinton Bill Clinton
1996 R Bob Dole Bob Dole Bob Dole
2000 D Al Gore Al Gore Al Gore
2000 R George W. Bush George W. Bush George W. Bush
2004 D John Kerry Howard Dean Howard Dean
2008 D Barack Obama Hillary Clinton Hillary Clinton
2008 R John McCain John McCain Rudy Giuliani
2012 R Mitt Romney Mitt Romney Newt Gingrich
2016 D Hillary Clinton Hillary Clinton Hillary Clinton
2016 R Donald Trump Jeb Bush Donald Trump
2020 D Joe Biden Joe Biden Joe Biden

The endorsement leader is determined using FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 endorsement-point scale for 1972-2016 and FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 endorsement-point scale for 2020. The polling leader is determined by the average of all national polls completed within 30 days of the Iowa caucuses. If a pollster surveyed the field multiple times during this period, only the most recent poll is included in the average.

Sources: “The Party Decides,” news reports, polls

Twelve of those 17 times, the same candidate led in both endorsements and polls. And of those 12, nine times the candidate won. But the five times that the endorsements and polls disagreed, the endorsement leader won twice, and the polling leader won only once. The other two times, a third candidate won.

It’s a small sample size, but endorsements have an even stronger track record when you filter out the years when the endorsement leader didn’t have all that many endorsements. For example, when the endorsement leader has earned at least 15 percent of the total estimated available endorsement points by the day before the Iowa caucuses, that candidate has won their party’s nomination nine out of 10 times. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton in 2008 is the only exception.

Dominant endorsement leaders usually win primaries

Leaders in FiveThirtyEight endorsement points and their share of estimated total endorsement points available on the day before the Iowa caucuses, and whether they won the nomination, in every Democratic and Republican presidential primary without an incumbent since 1972

Year Party Endorsement Leader Est. Share of Avail. Endorsement Points Won Nomination?
2016 D Hillary Clinton 77%
2000 R George W. Bush 69
2000 D Al Gore 60
1996 R Bob Dole 55
1988 R George H.W. Bush 31
2008 D Hillary Clinton 27
1984 D Walter Mondale 24
1992 D Bill Clinton 21
2012 R Mitt Romney 19
2008 R John McCain 16
1972 D Ed Muskie 14
1980 R Ronald Reagan 13
2020 D Joe Biden 10
2004 D Howard Dean 9
1988 D Dick Gephardt 7
2016 R Jeb Bush 6
1976 D Lloyd Bentsen 3

The endorsement leader is determined using FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 endorsement-point scale for 1972-2016 and its 2020 endorsement-point scale for 2020. The number of senators is as of the Iowa caucuses; the number of representatives is as of the election leading into the Congress during which the relevant Iowa caucuses were held; the number of governors reflects the results of the odd-year elections before the relevant Iowa caucus. Senators and representatives who caucus with one party are counted in that party’s estimated share of available endorsement points.

Sources: “The Party Decides,” DAVE LEIP’S ATLAS OF U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS, U.S. Census Bureau, National Governors Association, News reports

The other pre-Iowa endorsement leaders who didn’t win the nomination were weak front-runners. For example, then-Rep. Dick Gephardt earned just 7 percent of the total estimated endorsement points available in 1988. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had just 9 percent of the estimated available points in 2004. And in 2016, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had accrued just 6 percent of the endorsement points estimated to have been available then. It is more accurate to say that the party didn’t decide on anyone before Iowa during those years, as no elite consensus formed around those candidates. 

Of course, the party sometimes decides after Iowa. There is no more vivid illustration of this than the 2020 Democratic primary. On the day of the Nevada caucuses, now-President Biden had accrued just 11 percent of the estimated available endorsement points. His chances to win a majority of pledged delegates were just 8 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast at the time. But over the next two weeks, dozens of influential party members got behind him in an apparent effort to stop Sen. Bernie Sanders’s momentum, most memorably when Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg ended their own presidential campaigns and endorsed Biden on the same day. As of March 6 that year, Biden had secured 22 percent of estimated available endorsement points and had an 88 percent chance of winning a pledged-delegate majority.

It’s not yet clear what path Republican Party leaders will take in 2024 (again, it’s still early!). After all, Trump currently has only 11 percent of the total available endorsement points; in other words, an elite consensus has not yet formed. But there is already one key difference from 2016: Trump has some elite support. During his first campaign, it wasn’t until Feb. 24, 2016 — after he had already won New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — that a sitting governor or member of Congress endorsed him.

Since Trump also currently leads in national polls, this raises the possibility that 2024 will be the first incumbent-less Republican presidential primary since 2000 where the polling leader and endorsement leader before Iowa are one and the same. In 1988, 1996 and 2000, the same candidate — an insider’s insider (the sitting vice president, the Senate majority leader and the son of a former president, respectively) — led in both polls and endorsements. But in 2008, 2012 and 2016, the polling leader was someone more populist (former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Trump, respectively) while the endorsement leader was someone closer to the party establishment (then-Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, respectively).

In retrospect, the disagreements in 2008 and 2012 show that GOP voters were already straining at the leash of the party establishment. Then, in 2016, voters pulled again — and that time, the leash broke.

The early numbers for the 2024 Republican primary suggest that the polls and endorsements will again agree — but on a populist candidate. In other words, rather than struggle against them, it looks like party elites are meeting voters where they are (although it’s also true that today’s GOP elites look a lot Trumpier than they did 10 or 20 years ago, and that seems to be the wing of the party that has weighed in for Trump so far). But even if the tail is now wagging the dog, our endorsement tracker will bear witness to this historical turning point — whether Republican institutionalists try to take their party back in 2024 or actively consent to Trump’s new GOP.

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