Ben Carson's Risky Endorsement Strategy

Mike Stone / Reuters

Last week, while reporting my story on Ben Carson’s high burn rate and costly fundraising, I talked to Carson communications director Doug Watts about the campaign’s strategy. One criticism I heard of Carson’s effort was that he wasn’t spending on what a standard campaign would—TV advertising, for example. Watts said that was right; Carson is running a different kind of campaign, focused more on grassroots and on web targeting than traditional methods. And he volunteered that the campaign was lagging by another traditional standard, too.

“We haven’t gotten a single damn endorsement and we don’t care,” he told me. “We’re not looking for political endorsements.”

Many political scientists would question this strategy. There’s evidence that endorsements are quite important for a primary candidate. As UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck wrote this summer, “Since 1980, the single best predictor of a party’s nominee is the number of endorsements from party elites—elected officials and prominent past party leaders—in the months before primaries begin, according to The Party Decides, a 2008 book by Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller.”

Watts and I discussed this literature, but he said it didn’t worry him. “My answer to them is they’re full of shit,” he said.

In the spirit of fairness, I asked Vavreck to respond. In an email, she noted that as a social scientist, she’s in the business of finding patterns and nothing’s personal. She added:

It’s understandable to me that Mr. Carson and his team are disappointed by the fact that no sitting elected politician seems to think he would make a credible president or have much of a chance of beating the Democrat next year and that their expression of this frustration and disappointment is to declare that the science on this topic is “full of shit,” but it’s an unfortunate reaction that doesn’t move the conversation about whether 2016 is different forward. Are there reasons this year could be different? Anything is possible, but it’s unlikely there is anything particular about 2016 that renders the patterns of the last several decades moot.

All that said, one thing that is different about this year—or at least unusual—is that the pace of endorsements has been very slow in comparison with most past elections, other than 2012. It’s not just that Carson doesn’t have endorsements; it’s that other than Jeb Bush, hardly anyone on the Republican side does. (FiveThirtyEight has a good tally; on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is crushing her rivals.) “Whichever way you look at it, the fact that he has a lot of popular support and no elite support is not a good sign and very well may be a bad sign,” Vavreck wrote.

If it’s going to succeed, Carson’s campaign will need to make history in several ways. He’d be the first presidential nominee without elected experience since Dwight Eisenhower, and he’d be the first African American GOP nominee. Running while shirking endorsements is just another item for the list.