The first major political contest in which Donald Trump participated, he lost.
That was the Iowa Republican caucus in 2016, the first time voters got to weigh-in on the crowded field of Republican candidates for the party’s presidential nomination. And Trump, despite leading in polling coming into the caucus, came in second place to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — and only a bit in front of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Trump soon accused Cruz of having cheated, a now-very-familiar response to a loss from Trump. But he rebounded quickly, winning the New Hampshire primary easily and then beginning to line up enough primary and convention wins to secure the nomination. Eventually, he won the presidency.
As president and head of the party, Trump regularly boasted about his record of endorsement wins. That reputation — advanced through force of will more than the available evidence — has been badly damaged since 2016, particularly in the wake of this month’s midterm elections. It also depends heavily on Trump’s offering up endorsements in elections that his party was almost certain to win anyway.
Here’s Trump’s win-loss record, assessed year-by-year since the 2016 Iowa caucuses:
2016 Republican primaries. Trump won more support in 39 of the 54 contested nomination fights in 2016, according to a review of the year’s results. That includes nine wins after he locked up the nomination with a victory in the Indiana primary.
2016 general election. Trump won more electoral votes than Hillary Clinton but lost the popular vote by 2.9 million ballots. Republicans also saw their House majority slip by six votes and lost two Senate seats.
2017 elections. Ballotpedia has an excellent rundown of Trump’s endorsements by year. In 2017, for example, it documents seven endorsements in primary and general election fights, with Trump prevailing in four (all general election).
There weren’t many opportunities for Trump to weigh-in during that off-year, meaning less opportunity for him to cushion his losses with endorsements of incumbents who were expected to coast to victory. That changed the following year.
2018 elections. Trump made more than 130 endorsements in 2018, including both primary and general election endorsements for some candidates. Most of his endorsed primary candidates won (35 of 37) but his candidates won a bit over half of their general-election fights (56 of 95). That includes six state-level candidates in Texas, for example, as well as several almost-certain red-state governor candidates.
Nationally, his party was battered, losing more than 40 seats in the House. Republicans gained two seats in the Senate, thanks to a favorable map (picking up seats Democrats gained in the 2012 presidential cycle), something that Trump seized upon as proof of his effectiveness as a party leader.
2019 elections. Another year with relatively few contests left Trump with another mediocre record. Four of his five primary endorsements were successful, as were six of his nine general-election ones.
2020 elections. The Republican Party was assertive about boxing out challengers to Trump in the 2020 party primaries, rendering an assessment of those contests about as useful as parsing the vote totals for Kim Jong Un’s most recent reelection bid.
He made more than 300 endorsements in primary and general-election contests, with his primary candidates winning in 117 of the 121 identified by Ballotpedia. In general elections, his candidates won 142 of 182. Those wins were again driven higher by endorsing numerous incumbents; more than half of his wins were incumbents winning primaries and then retaining their positions.
The marquee race that year, of course, was his own, with Trump again losing the popular vote as he also trailed in the electoral college. His party also lost control of the Senate, though it did add 14 seats in the House.
2021 elections. Trump made relatively few endorsements last year, according to Ballotpedia. His three primary endorsements were successful while two of his three general-election ones prevailed.
2022 elections. With an eye on announcing his candidacy for the 2024 presidential nomination, Trump made nearly 500 endorsements in the most recent cycle. Most were successful, thanks to his making a number of endorsements aimed at boosting his total. (His endorsement of Doug Mastriano’s gubernatorial primary bid in Pennsylvania, for example, came only after it was clear Mastriano would win — and as it seemed possible that his endorsed Senate candidate, Mehmet Oz, might not make the general.) In total, Trump’s candidates won 224 of 241 primary races and 208 of 254 general-election ones.
Ballotpedia also broke out key battleground races for 2022, contests that weren’t simply Trump rubber-stamping the likely Republican winner. In those, they estimate, Trump’s candidate won in only 14 of 37 general-election contests (though the results are incomplete, awaiting other election calls). That includes Oz’s loss in Pennsylvania.
Overall, Trump’s party underperformed expectations, failing to retake the Senate while only barely taking a majority in the House. For Democrats, it was a surprisingly good year, given how midterm elections usually go for the party of a new president.
Even with the inflationary effects of gimme races (like endorsing incumbent red-state candidates), Trump’s endorsed candidates (including Trump himself) have won about three-quarters of their races. In close races in 2022, he came in well below that level — and in fact, he may have hurt some of those he endorsed. Research published after the 2018 midterms found that Trump had a downward drag on candidates he endorsed, with rallies on their behalf effectively prompting Democrats to turn out more heavily. He might actually have helped Republicans lose more than a dozen House seats that year.
Trump’s position with the Republican Party, then, might be the worst one possible: very effective at getting his candidates to win primaries by speaking to his base — but ineffective at getting those candidates to win in November. His base makes up a sizable chunk of the GOP, yes, but a much smaller part of the electorate. His polarizing effect on the primary electorate aids Republicans who side with him, but his polarizing effect overall probably often hurts his candidates.
This is unacceptable to Trump, of course, so on Monday morning he released a new statement about the midterms.
“Joe O’Dea lost his race in CO by over 12 points because he campaigned against MAGA. Likewise, candidates who shifted their ‘messaging’ after winning big in the Primaries (Bolduc!) saw big losses in General. Will they ever learn their lesson? You can’t win without MAGA!” pic.twitter.com/zpPznnDCFK
— Liz Harrington (@realLizUSA) November 21, 2022
Cherry-picking examples, Trump claims that it was insufficient fealty to him that cost Republicans victories in 2022. Heads, he wins; tails, his opponents lose.
Had close contests in 2022 actually come down to a coin toss, of course, Ballotpedia’s data suggest that the party would have done better than they did with Trump’s endorsements.