Stop the Presses: O’Malley Nabs Swalwell Endorsement

by Stuart Rothenberg August 14, 2015 · 12:10 PM EDT

Who knew the Democratic presidential race would be fundamentally changed in the blink of an eye? But that happened recently when California congressman Eric Swalwell, 34, endorsed former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a little.

In the email I received from the O’Malley campaign announcing the endorsement (which was also published as an op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register), Swalwell recounts the time O’Malley, then mayor of Baltimore, visited the future congressman’s government class at the University of Maryland, College Park. (Read my Roll Call colleague Emma Dumain’s interesting conversation with the congressman about his endorsement.)

“He spoke about our civic duty to help others, unify communities and offer solutions for the common good. I was hooked,” wrote Swalwell, who described himself in the email as “a voice for 80 million millennials” and asserted, “Our generation needs a leader like Martin in the White House.”

Well, it’s no wonder Swalwell got hooked on O’Malley given all that meaty stuff about “civic duty” and the “common good.”  But can one person be a voice for 80 million millennials? Do all millennials really believe the same things and have the same political views? And if Swalwell’s generation needs O’Malley, does that mean that other generations probably need someone else?

But this column isn’t really about Swalwell, whose loyalty to O’Malley and sincere interest in public service are admirable qualities. It’s about O’Malley and his campaign.

You really have to wonder about why the O’Malley campaign asked Swalwell for an endorsement, distributed Swalwell’s email or even cares about endorsements.

Sure, Swalwell is young, and age is O’Malley’s primary contrast with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernard Sanders. We all get that. But so what?

Clearly, the coveted Swalwell endorsement, which is only second to the even more coveted so-called Bob Shrum primary among Democrats, won’t have Sanders shaking in his boots.

And it’s hard to imagine that the Swalwell endorsement forced Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook and strategists Joel Benenson and Jim Margolis to huddle for a few hours to look for ways to limit the damage.

When you are an obscure presidential candidate who is getting no traction and is still trying to carve out a niche for yourself, an endorsement may seem like just the ticket. I say it may “seem” like the ticket because it isn’t actually a ticket to anywhere.

I have said often, most of the things that happen in a campaign don’t really affect whether a candidate wins or loses. That’s particularly true of endorsements in presidential campaigns. And that is doubly true of an endorsement from an obscure congressman, even if he was born in Iowa.

If Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama (and Caroline Kennedy’s, Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s and then-Sen. John Kerry’s endorsements, as well) in the 2008 Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary couldn’t help the Illinois senator defeat Clinton in the Bay State, how powerful can an endorsement be?

And if Bill Clinton’s endorsement of Alison Lundergan Grimes in the 2014 Kentucky Senate race couldn’t help her get any closer than 15 points against incumbent Mitch McConnell, how important was the former president’s endorsement?

Sure, if voters don’t know any of the candidates, some or even many of them may use endorsements as vote cues to help them cast a ballot. But O’Malley is running for president, and if he ever gets known by Democrats (in an early state or nationally), he will be evaluated by those voters on what he says and how he behaves, not on the basis of his endorsements.

The O’Malley folks must know the Swalwell endorsement is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. They aren’t stupid. So why did they ask for it and why did they distribute it?

I really don’t know. I’d guess the former governor’s staff has to do something to make it seem as if their candidate is gaining support, and the folks in the press, political and fundraising departments have to keep busy, especially if they are being paid.

Press folks, in particular, do stuff that is a huge waste of time. Most of the emails campaigns send around to reporters accomplish little or nothing, but that doesn’t stop them from sending them out. So the O’Malley folks probably are doing things like sending out the Swalwell endorsement email because somewhere along the way they learned that’s the sort of thing they are expected to do.

I’m sure that Swalwell, who defeated veteran Democratic Rep. Pete Stark in 2012, has a long and promising career ahead of him. His loyalty to O’Malley is noteworthy. But this endorsement is so unimportant in the Democratic race that I wouldn’t be writing about it if this wasn’t August of the off year.  Maybe it’s all that the O’Malley campaign has.