Clinton crushed 'invisible primary.' Will that matter?

Hillary Clinton has corralled the support of 59 percent of national Democratic Party leaders, while Bernie Sanders has been shut out altogether.

Brian C. Frank/Reuters
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in the gymnasium of Moulton Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday.

It’s true that Hillary Clinton is slipping in the polls. But she’s still got an overwhelming lead in another measure that political scientists consider very important: endorsements.

Mrs. Clinton has corralled the support of 59 percent of all Democratic Party national-level officials – governors, representatives, and senators – according to a list compiled by the folks at The New York Times data arm, The Upshot. Joe Biden has been endorsed by 1.2 percent (that’s one governor and two lawmakers), even though he has not officially declared his candidacy. Bernie Sanders has none. He’s been shut out.

In this context, endorsements aren’t really an advertisement, like an athlete’s endorsement of a shoe. Few voters are going to think, “Oh, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York likes Hillary Clinton, maybe I’ll back her, too.”

What they are is a means for party elites to organize and communicate amongst themselves. These people want the strongest possible nominee on the top of the ticket. They want that person identified early, so there’s lots of time to raise money, plan strategy, and campaign.

That’s what the so-called invisible primary is all about. In the months prior to actual voting, candidates vie for the backing of party insiders. Since 1980, the number of a candidate’s endorsements has been an accurate predictor of the number of delegates that the individual will win at the convention.

“Endorsements by party leaders are the most visible part of the invisible primary,” write political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Lynn Vavreck of UCLA in their book on the 2012 race, “The Gamble."

This year, the question is whether all those Democratic Party leaders made their pick too early.

Clintonworld did a great job in the invisible primary. All those endorsements are a big reason why VP Joe Biden didn’t lay the foundations for a 2016 run. It was clear the party had decided Clinton was its best chance to keep the White House.

Now the e-mail imbroglio and the rise of Senator Sanders have cut deeply into Clinton’s poll lead. While she still has a substantial survey lead, it’s nowhere near as overwhelming as her endorsement edge, and it’s narrowing.

If Clinton loses the nomination despite her internal party backing, it will be a huge upset – changing not just the contours of the 2016 race, but likely the way political parties conduct future invisible primaries, and the speed with which they bestow endorsement picks.

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