Do Endorsements Matter in Today’s Presidential Races?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 19, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

“Score another big name endorsement for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign,” crowed on July 5, the day the Clinton campaign announced that former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) would serve as an economic adviser and co-chairman of the presidential hopeful’s campaign.

That was the same day I received an e-mail from the Edwards for President folks, bragging that the former North Carolina Senator had “picked up the support of several prominent Ohio leaders.”

“Fourteen Ohio Democrats are endorsing Edwards as the strongest candidate to put a Democrat back in the White House and the candidate with the boldest plans to build One America, where every person has the chance to work hard and get ahead,” continued the news release.

John Edwards’ Ohio endorsements followed earlier releases about “prominent Latinos” and “African American Leaders” who were endorsing him. Both lists included state and local elected officials, as well as a number of community “activists” and “leaders,” a catch-all that could mean pretty much anything.

A few days earlier, the campaign of Sen. Joseph Biden had sent out a news release about three Iowa state Representatives who were endorsing the Delaware Democrat.

And then there are all those celebrity endorsements, from Susan Sarandon to Paul Newman to Laurie David to a bunch of other public figures who fall under the general heading of “personalities.”

Yes, endorsements are a big deal … except that 99 percent of them — at least 99 percent — don’t matter.

Thank goodness for Gephardt, who self-deprecatingly joked about his endorsement of Clinton: “I’m a has-been politician, so I don’t know that I can do anything more than bring my own vote, but maybe I can get my family to vote the right way.”

The New York Daily News headlined his comment as “Gep’s gaffe,” proving once again that reporters don’t really want politicians to tell the truth, and when they do say something that resembles reality, those reporters criticize them for it.

But, of course, Gephardt, who is still widely liked in the nation’s capital, is correct. His endorsement will get Clinton exactly one vote. Where he was wrong was implying that the endorsements of current political figures (or celebrities) matter. As a rule, endorsements almost never matter.

Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean on Dec. 9, 2003, a day after New Hampshire’s largest teachers union backed Dean and just about a month after two huge, influential labor unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Service Employees International Union, jointly endorsed him.

At that time, of course, Dean was far and away the leading Democratic presidential hopeful in fundraising, cash on hand and most polling. If those endorsements had enhanced Dean’s appeal, they should have shut the door on the rest of the Democratic field.

But Dean fell to third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, so they proved as influential as then-Gov. John Engler’s endorsement of George W. Bush in the 2000 Michigan GOP primary.

Michigan, we were told repeatedly back then, was the Bush campaign’s “firewall,” an absolutely impenetrable barrier that would stop anyone not named Bush from winning the state’s Republican primary. The firewall certainly looked ominous, given the enthusiastic support of Bush by Engler, a politically powerful governor who was both a top strategist and booster of the Texan.

Bush lost Michigan (garnering 43 percent to Sen. John McCain’s [R-Ariz.] 51 percent), in part because some state voters wanted to embarrass Engler, reflecting the limits of an endorsement.

The reason that endorsements don’t matter much is that presidential contests are such high-profile, visible fights that voters can draw their own opinions of the candidates. You either like Clinton or you don’t. You can make your own mind up about it. You don’t need some celebrity or politician telling you what to do.

The endorsements are intended, of course, to create an impression of support, either among key subgroups of the electorate —blacks, evangelicals, Hispanics, party insiders, home-schoolers, environmentalists, conservatives, labor unions, etc. — or in the electorate at large. It’s the classic effort to create a bandwagon, to establish the inevitability of your victory.

But the truth of the matter is that only a few people are persuaded by endorsements in White House contests. And sometimes endorsements can backfire, undercutting a candidate’s core appeal and message, or creating another target for the candidates’ opponents. (Those Thomas Ravenel and Sen. David Vitter [R-La.] endorsements for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani don’t look quite as good as they once did, huh?)

So let the candidates roll out their list of state legislators, city council officials, dogcatchers and “activists” who support them. Just remember that only those few people who have a campaign treasury under their control or real fundraising clout, a near-unique ability to motivate and mobilize real people, or unusual influence in Iowa are truly important supporters.