Quantifying the Value of Nikki Haley’s Endorsement

It was leaked this afternoon that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will endorse U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.  Questions about Haley’s endorsement have persisted for months.  Until today, the only reliable information was that she would not be endorsing Donald Trump. Needless to say, Haley’s endorsement is welcome news for Rubio’s campaign as voters head to the polls on Saturday for the GOP primary.  But just how much is Haley’s endorsement worth?

According my data, Haley’s endorsement should net Rubio an additional 4% on Saturday.  But first, a little background.

Perhaps the most contentious issue among election forecasters this cycle is the extent to which party elites shape presidential nomination contest outcomes.  Although primaries and caucuses give voters the power to decide who wins the nomination, and even though parties are hardly monolithic teams that act in perfect harmony, the conventional wisdom is that party elites do indeed have considerable power over who wins the nomination.

In large part this view stems from a book appropriately titled “The Party Decides.”  Written by political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, the book proposes that one of the key tools used by party elites is the power of their endorsement.  It is a testament to Cohen et al.’s work that Nate Silver--the most influential election prognosticator--has written extensively about the party decides thesis and has even catalogued endorsement data this cycle.  Silver calls it the “endorsement primary.”

Although most political observers accept the general wisdom of the “The Party Decides,” the contentiousness surrounding this book concerns how (if at all) Donald Trump fits into the thesis.  Given that most Republican elites are apprehensive (to put it mildly) toward a Trump nomination, and Trump he has secured so few endorsements, there are questions about the book’s predictive power in 2016.  For a more thorough discussion of these issues, see Nate Cohen and Nate Silver.

Back to Nikki Haley and Marco Rubio.  If endorsements do indeed affect who wins the nomination, it should be possible to quantify just how much Haley’s endorsement is worth.

I have been working on a project with two College of Charleston students that examines the factors that correlate with success (or failure) in South Carolina’s nomination contests.  Our data cover the period from 1988 to 2012, giving us an even balance of five contested Democratic elections and five contested Republican elections.

Our primary predictors of a candidate’s vote share include their performance in New Hampshire and Iowa, how much media attention the candidate received, a candidate’s demographic characteristics, and the volume of their endorsements by state party officials.

We plan to release the model’s full predictions Friday evening and discuss more fully what factors have shaped South Carolina’s election results from 1988 to 2012.  Spoiler alert: endorsements are indeed an important factor in the model.

But just how much does a governor’s endorsement matter.

According to the model, from 1988 to 2012 the governor’s endorsement has netted the endorsed candidate an additional 4% of the vote.

Clearly, 4% is not enough to vault Marco Rubio past Donald Trump (at least, not on its own).  According to most polls, Trump has a 19-point lead over Rubio (35% to 16%).  However, a 4% improvement in his vote share would put Rubio in second place ahead of Ted Cruz (who is polling around 18%).

Going forward, a second place finish would be of considerable value for Rubio’s campaign.  A third place finish, however, could dim Rubio’s long term prospects.