Party people get on board.

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Bernie Who? Hillary Steams Ahead on Endorsements

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Do you think enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton is fading within the Democratic Party? Here's a list of new endorsements she has gathered just in August:

  • U.S. Representatives Bill Pascrell Jr., Bonnie Watson Coleman, Donald Payne Jr., Xavier Becerra and Scott Peters
  • Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson
  • Former South Carolina Governors Dick Riley and Jim Hodges
  • Former North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan
  • From Iowa: former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, state Attorney General Tom Miller and state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald
  • Twenty of 21 of New Jersey's county Democratic chairmen and a bunch of N.J. state legislators
  • Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey
  • California Assemblyman David Chiu
  • In New Hampshire, State Senator David Watters 
  • In Connecticut, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch
  • The Cook County (Chicago) Democratic Party

This month's haul swamps anything Bernie Sanders or the draft-Joe-Biden effort has rolled out over the entire campaign. And Clinton already had an intimidating number of endorsements, leaving few available for her to add.

Yes, Sanders has now moved ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire polls, and her national polling lead is down from enormous to merely very large. But as long as the party is with her, she isn't in trouble.

Here's why we pay so much attention to endorsements.

U.S. political parties have always been large, complex and decentralized. In addition to the formal organizations at national, state and local levels -- the Democratic National Committee, say, or the Cook County Democratic Party -- our larger "expanded" parties also include networks of politicians, campaign and governing professionals, activists, donors, the partisan press, and party-aligned interest groups.

Presidential nominations call on all of those party actors -- who number in the tens of thousands -- to compete and coordinate in choosing a candidate. Unlike people who do nothing other than vote, and who only tune in close to election time, party actors have a lot at stake in the direction and the success of the party. If they collectively decide on a nominee, their choice will almost certainly be confirmed in the primaries and caucuses. If they don't, then voters may be swayed instead by fads and the media, and select a candidate who might not be loyal to the party agenda and personnel if elected.

Yet this active party group has no formal mechanism to reach a collective decision. Nor is there a clear standard for judging how important any of these people are within the party. And in some cases, regulatory restrictions prevent party actors from sorting it all out.

Endorsements are a way to give the process some structure. They are a form of intraparty communication that's easy to see and count. 

No single endorsement, no matter how impressive or important the endorser, forces others to fall in line. But each adds information about how the nomination battle is progressing and helps others assess the situation.

Say a Christian conservative group was to endorse Mike Huckabee. Seeing that, other activists or donors primarily concerned with conservative Christian issues might choose him over Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz or Ben Carson, all of whom are similarly positioned. Or, for those who don't really like Huckabee, it could be a reason to get off the fence and publicly endorse one of the others. Eventually, enough people within the network have picked a candidate that it becomes clearer where that portion of the party stands. Then the rest tend to hop on the bandwagon. 

And because the endorsements are public, other groups within the party might be motivated to weigh in. So if business conservatives see Huckabee gaining steam, they may try to send a signal on whether they find him acceptable or not. Christian conservatives can take that into account as they move forward.

In the year before the election usually or early during the caucuses and primaries, parties either settle on a single candidate (Hillary Clinton for Democrats this time, George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000) or two or three evenly matched contenders (such as Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008). Groups of party actors may still reject that choice -- to the point of trying to rally voters in the caucuses and primaries to overturn the party's choice. But everyone involved can see what's going on.

This time, the Democrats have made a clear choice, with continuing endorsements showing that the party remains collectively committed to Clinton. She'll be in trouble if and only if that changes.

  1. Compiled from the FiveThirtyEight endorsement list of governors and members of Congress, and from footnotes on Wikipedia's 2016 endorsement page. It's possible that one or more of these "new" endorsements are pre-August commitments that the press didn't notice earlier; it's also likely that this list omits others who didn't get added to the Wikipedia page.

  2. Despite the fine empirical work by Cohen et al. in "The Party Decides," I'm skeptical that we have, or even can have, a definitive answer on which endorsements best predict nominations. The influence of various party actors (individually or by category of party actor) is partially revealed in each cycle by how people react to them. This is why I track various endorsement lists, national and local.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net