Clinton Dominating Sanders In N.H. Endorsement Game. But Will It Matter?

Sep 30, 2015

The Hillary Clinton campaign has been doing it for weeks, rolling out the names of prominent local backers. Sometimes the names are big, such as Gov. Maggie Hassan. Other times, they are smaller, like Wednesday's endorser, former Executive Councilor Debora Pignatelli.

Either way, the Clinton campaign keeps them coming. But the same thing can’t be said for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who counts no current office holders among his Granite State backers. The question is: Does that matter in this election?

Go to any Sanders event these days, like this one earlier this month at the University of New Hampshire, and the crowd will be big. And it will be loud.

But it won’t have much in the way of what tends to be a key source of support for would-be presidents: past and present local elected officials. Their absence is not a complete surprise. Sanders may be a U.S senator from a neighboring state, but he’s an outsider, seeking the nomination of a party he’s never seen fit to join. And fealty to the powers-that-be isn’t his thing.

“It has not been the people on the top, not been the president and congress who have made things happen. It has always, without exception been grassroots moment, people on the bottom forcing that change.”

Realizing change through a party primary can be done, but it can also be tough going. So says Hans Noel, a professor at Georgetown, and co-author of “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform.”

Bernie Sanders
Credit 350 Vermont/Flickr

“Whoever the party insiders want, they are going to find a way to get, so part of it is that," Noel says. "But probably the more important thing is that there are on the ground resources.”

Noel says the dynamic is pretty basic: The more elites who like a candidate, the more money, manpower, and institutional knowledge will flow that candidate's way.  In that sense, endorsements, particularly early in a race, may be a more telling proxy for its ultimate outcome, than polls. A long list of high-profile backers can also help candidates weather the inevitable rough patch, says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

“And if a candidate stumbles, if there is a scandal. If there is some reason they (voters)  have to think about or call into question some of their assumptions, the candidate with the endorsement will tend to look a lot better," Masket says.  "If they have any doubts, they say, 'Oh, so-and-so is still backing them.'”

In this race, pretty much all the so-and-sos are backing a single candidate, Hillary Clinton. Not a governor, senator or member of Congress anywhere has endorsed Sanders. In New Hampshire, the tally is just as lopsided.  From Gov. Maggie Hassan and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, to Congresswoman Annie Kuster, to eight current state senators, Clinton’s list of known political supporters goes on and on. Sanders' is basically nonexistent.

Whoever the party insiders want, they are going to find a way to get, so part of it is that. But probably the more important thing is that there are on the ground resources.

As a cabinet member to one president, wife to another, and winner of the 2008 New Hampshire primary, Clinton is as close to being an incumbent as a non-incumbent could be. And while Sanders’ current polling suggests plenty of Democratic voters may be open to backing him right now, history shows New Hampshire Democrats tend to pass on insurgent candidates on primary day.

“It’s been a long time since New Hampshire Democrats have been that rebellious," says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. “You could point to Paul Tsongas in 1992, although I don’t know if that’s a clear cut case. But before that you’ve got to go back to Gary Hart.”

Which means it does happen, just not very often. But for Sanders’ backers, 2016 could be that kind of year.  Former state senator Burt Cohen of New Castle  is perhaps Sanders’ best known local supporter. Cohen says history has shown him the effect of endorsements in New Hampshire isn’t what it may be in other states, and anyway, he’s been here before.

“In 1992, I was the only elected official to come out for Paul Tsongas, and he joked that he was hoping to win the New Hampshire primary without any official support, and he did win," Cohen says.

Tsongas did win that year's New Hampshire primary, and it was over a candidate who had the backing of much of the state’s political establishment and who went on to win his party’s nomination and the presidency: Bill Clinton.