Trump, Mo Brooks and the Republican endorsement game

Jonathan Bernstein
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
Former President Donald Trump, right, welcomes congressional candidate Mo Brooks (R-AL) to the stage during a "Save America" rally at York Family Farms on Aug. 21, 2021, in Cullman, Alabama. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

I have to admit: I have no idea how Republicans are going to react to Donald Trump’s latest scam.

Trump’s ability to move votes in Republican primaries is limited and has been over the years. His endorsements are most valuable in multi-candidate fields in which there’s no obvious leader, since in that type of election voters are typically looking for cues to decide how to vote. But he’s rarely demonstrated much of an ability to affect more stable contests. Earlier this month in the Texas primaries, Trump-backed candidates seemed to do no better than they would have without his endorsement.

That said, at times Trump has shown a pretty good ability to jump to the front of the parade — endorsing the candidate otherwise most likely to win, and then taking credit when it happens. That’s pretty much what he did in Texas, where he endorsed incumbents and shied away from elections that were harder to handicap. There’s nothing wrong with that; convincing other Republicans that his endorsement is valuable by using it selectively is a pretty normal political gambit.

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Unfortunately for the former president, some of his choices in upcoming primaries aren’t working out so well.

He reacted to the dismal polls in Alabama for his endorsed Senate candidate, U.S. Representative Mo Brooks, by yanking his support and offering up the implausible excuse that Brooks wasn’t sufficiently loyal in backing Trump’s obsession with overturning the 2020 election. Brooks repaid Trump by producing accusatory headlines about that obsession, but that’s neither here nor there within the Republican Party. If Trump could alienate the party by proving that his word wasn’t reliable, or that he has no sense of the basic rules of the U.S. political system, or that he’s ready to roll over the law any time it suits him, then he would have been bounced from it long ago. The question is whether Trump can maintain the illusion that his endorsement is essential by moving it around as the polls change. If not, one of his major sources of influence within the party will be gone.

It’s not Trump’s only strength. There are lots of Republican voters who really like him. Still, perceptions of his popularity may wane if his reputation for providing valuable endorsements dissipates.

Trump’s strongest leverage over the rest of the party centers on general elections, not primaries. Republicans are wary of defying Trump because he’s perfectly capable of urging his supporters to stay home, or to support third-party (or perhaps even Democratic) candidates if he gets angry enough with Republicans. Few political leaders have had the ability to blackmail their own parties, because most of them have strong ties to parties and platforms. Trump, a Republican outsider until his 2016 presidential run, has much weaker connections.

Trump has benefited from the implicit blackmail threat when party leaders who strongly dislike him have nevertheless stuck with him, or stayed quiet during the 2016 and 2020 general-election campaigns. But no one thinks that Trump would be loyal to the party in the future, and with the electorate so equally divided, Trump would only need a small fraction of Republican voters to stick with him against the rest of the party to ruin its chances in most national elections.

So regardless of what happens in the upcoming primaries, Republicans are probably not done with Trump yet, even if they want to be. Nevertheless, he’ll have more influence if he can convince party actors that his endorsement matters. Which brings me back to where I started: It certainly looks as if Trump doesn’t move primary voters, and his efforts to hide that are transparently silly, but whether Republican party actors will agree? I have no idea.

— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.