WASHINGTON DC – Donald Trump values his own endorsements. We know this because the former US president has bragged about his (arguably somewhat inflated) success rate and announces his endorsements with great fanfare.
Republican candidates value Trump’s endorsements as well. We know this because of how they flatter him while running for office, how Republicans travel down to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida retreat, to meet him and pose with him, and how they celebrate his stamp of approval once it has been granted.
In an Ohio senate seat primary Trump recently endorsed JD Vance, who, in 2016, was a Trump critic but has since rebranded himself as a Trump champion. (He was chosen over Josh Mandel, an early Trump booster.) The primary election is on 3 May.
Trump is also expected by many to lend his endorsement to Blake Masters in Arizona. Masters, like Vance, is backed by Peter Thiel, a billionaire libertarian. Trump also, this year, endorsed Mehmet Oz — better known as “Dr Oz” from his career on television as a talk show doctor — drawing the ire of some of his loyal supporters. (The Arizona Republican primary is in August; the Pennsylvania primary in mid-May.)
And so it is worth asking: is a Trump endorsement actually considered as valuable to voters as it is to candidates?
The short answer is that, yes, it still matters.
Even if no voter is swayed by the Trump endorsement, just the idea of his power can shape a race. “The pro-Trump lane in the Ohio GOP senate primary has been crowded,” Thomas Wood, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University, said. “A large number of candidates took trips to Mar-a-Lago auditioning for the Trump endorsement. A well-funded aspirant, Bernie Moreno, who had even afforded commercials, dropped out after meeting with the [former] president and failing to make an impression.”
There is a circularity at work: candidates believe Trump is important, so they portray themselves as close to him and campaign in such a way as to win his approval, thus playing up the idea that Trump is important. Wood added that the way in which the candidates were acting would indicate that “they’re in possession of campaign polling suggesting the Trump endorsement will be a huge motivator”.
The longer answer is, as ever, more complicated.
In the cases of Vance and Masters, Trump is not picking (or expected to pick) the person already at the front of the pack. That suggests that he is trying to shape the idea of a Trump-aligned candidate, more than respond to what his voters already think one to be. It is yet to be seen whether Trump’s blessing will be enough to make up the significant gaps in the polls between Vance and Masters and the frontrunners in their races.
There’s another element, too. Trump’s endorsement is the biggest, but it is not the only one. He is not the only person who would like to have a say in who is involved in the Republican Party, though he still has the loudest voice, and he is not the only person who would like to remind his fellow politicians that his name and ideas matter.
“In Ohio, the big endorsements are off the board. Vance has Trump, [Mike] Gibbons has [the Kentucky Senator] Rand Paul, and Mandel has [the Texas Senator] Ted Cruz,” Wood said. “It’s interesting because there’s basically no policy disagreements between the field of candidates, so these endorsements will likely loom in voters’ minds.”
If Vance, who was lagging in the polls, wins the primary, it will indeed show the power of a Trump endorsement. If he does not, it will suggest that a Trump endorsement cannot make or break a candidate — and, indeed, that Trump is not the only Republican whose endorsement is worth having, not the only kingmaker in the Republican kingdom.