Powell for Obama: Nothing More than a Real Yawner

by Stuart Rothenberg October 20, 2008 · 3:21 PM EDT

With the amount of media coverage that retired General Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama received over the weekend, you might think that it was a game-changer. It wasn’t.

Powell remains an important and widely admired political figure, and he could have had some impact on the 2008 Presidential contest. But his endorsement wasn’t ever likely to be as crucial as some commentators said it was over the weekend, and the timing of his announcement made it even less important than it might have been.

If we’ve learned anything during the 2008 Presidential contest it ought to be that endorsements in high profile Presidential contests don’t matter very much. I cannot say that they don’t matter at all, but it’s pretty clear that they are of so marginal a value that they barely are worth noting.

Some people, I’m certain, still believe that the endorsements of Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and John Edwards handed Obama the nomination, and nothing will dissuade them.

Bit if the endorsements of Governor Deval Patrick (D-Mass.) and Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), couldn’t deliver the state to Obama in the 2008 Massachusetts Democratic Presidential primary, then no endorsement is crucial.

This year’s contest was so long and so heavily covered in the national media that voters had plenty of time to observe the candidates themselves and decide who they preferred. Chuck Norris’ endorsement of Mike Huckabee didn’t help him much even though some Republicans like the actor. That’s not the way people decide how to vote in Presidential elections.

But Powell could have had at least some impact on the race if he had endorsed in mid September, when McCain was running even or ahead of the Illinois Democrat and when voters still had great doubts about Obama’s experience, particularly in national security matters.

At that point, Powell could have lent his stature and credibility on foreign policy matters to Obama, praising the Senator’s judgment and values and validating Democratic assertions about him.

Once the financial crisis hit in late September and early October, the public’s focus changed and the two candidates were evaluated in different terms. For Obama , that focus automatically was a plus, both because he has more credibility and experience on domestic issues than on foreign policy matters and because Republicans received more of the blame for the crisis. Moreover, McCain’s own behavior, especially compared to Obama’s coolness, benefited the Democratic nominee.

With national polling showing Obama having established a clear and consistent lead over McCain and polls in key swing states having shifted, Powell’s endorsement is little more than a postscript – an afterthought that doesn’t change the general direction of the race.