Reality Check: The Limitations of Clinton's Clout
When Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell won his member-versus-member primary last night over Rep. Steve Rothman in New Jersey's 9th Congressional District, Pascrell became the second Democratic incumbent in a row to win a member-member race with backing from Bill Clinton.
Cue the media hordes praising Clinton's magic touch. And as if another opportunity to divine causation from correlation wasn't good enough, the 9th District provided the juicy added opportunity to compare President Obama unfavorably to his Democratic predecessor, because the current president supported Rothman.
But if Clinton's endorsement was so powerful, former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez would be celebrating a Democratic primary win of his own in New Mexico's 1st District, and Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, would still be looking forward to his ninth term in Congress. In reality, Chavez finished a distant third in a field of three, and Reyes lost his renomination race to a youthful Democratic challenger.
It's not that Clinton's endorsement means nothing; few Democrats can energize a crowd like he does, and his name remains a signal for a few low-information primary voters. But the biggest effect of Clinton's endorsements this cycle has been media hype about his influence.
Endorsements are great fun to follow, but the more important factor Clinton's victorious endorsees had in common was a powerful ground game. Pascrell started his primary at a geographic disadvantage: Fifty-four percent of New Jersey 9th District residents came from Rothman's old seat, compared to just 43 percent for Pascrell. But voters from Passaic County, Pascrell's base, comprised nearly 55 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, and nine-tenths of them voted for Pascrell.