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How much do endorsements matter?

If the headline could handle it, or if I was writing a Dickens-era novel, I would call this one, "In which your obedient ink-stained wretch free associates from endorsements to gender to race to the mystery of caucuses to the latest handicapping of the Minn. Sen. Race, in a touching, desperate effort to give you some facts and ideas about the presidential race that you haven't already heard."

But even a twisting ramble needs a starting point, so:

How much do endorsements matter?

I'm talking here not about the Minnesota-style official party endorsement, but the personal endorsements of presidential candidates by elected officials? At the moment, I'm thinking: Not so much.

Sen. Barack Obama this morning announced that he has received the endorsement of Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington (state, of course). This might seem significant, especially since Washington Dems are caucusing Saturday.

Governors' endorsements are sometimes said to be particularly important, in the belief that they have statewide organizations in place. I would note that two of Sen. Hillary Clinton's most important wins on Super Tuesday were in states, Arizona and Massachusetts, in which Obama had the endorsement of the governors (Janet Napolitano in Arizona and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts.) Clinton won Arizona by a solid 51-42 percent and clobberized him in Mass. by 57-41. (And of course, Obama also had the backing of Mass. demi-god Ted Kennedy. Is it possible we made too much of that endorsement?


No help
Oh yeah. Gov. Pawlenty wasn't able to do much for his guy, John McCain, in Minnesota either. But you heard about that.

By the way, if your suspicious mind, like mine, was drawn to the gender of two of those Obama endorsers, Napolitano and Gregoire, yes, I checked. Three of the five woman Dem governors have endorsed Obama. (The third was Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. And Obama did win Kansas by a wide margin, despite being endorsed by the governor.) So Clinton, whose success to date has relied heavily on the gender gap, lost the mini-primary among women governors.

The other two female Dem Guvs, Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, did endorse Clinton (Minner did so only after Joe Biden, also of Delaware, dropped out). Sure enough, Obama cleaned Clinton's clock in Delaware, 53-42 percent. Clinton did win INFINITELY BIG in Michigan, but the value of the Granholm endorsement may have been outweighed by the fact that Cliinton was the only candidate on the ballot.

Circling back to Washington (state, of course), which as I said, is tomorrow, Obama is heavily favored to win there and already was before Gov. Gregoire weighed in. That is mostly because Washington (state) is a caucus state.

Obama has won seven caucuses this year, starting with Iowa, and including Minnesota on Tuesday. He has won them all big, several by 40- and 50-percentage-point margins. (Seriously, Idaho: 81-17; Alaska: 72-27; Kansas: 74-26; Minn.: 67-32; only Iowa was under 10 percentage points and it was 38-29). Clinton has won only one caucus state, Nevada, by only 51-45, and Obama ended up getting more delegates. The New Mexico caucus from Tuesday is very close and, unbelievably, they are still counting (and it's looking like Clinton by a nose).

But Clinton has dominated in primary states, especially big ones (does the name California ring a bell?). Obama has lost most primaries, other than in some state (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama) with large black populations.

Better organization?
What is this about? My buddy Tom Hamburger of the Los Angeles Times, who has been studying the Obama successes hard, believes it is superior organization, which reputedly helps more in caucus states. The excellent Des Moines Register political reporter Thomas Beaumont writes that Team Obama figured out some things about how win caucuses in Iowa and has built his organization in all subsequent caucus states around veterans of the Iowa success.

Greg Mitchell, writing in Editor and Publisher of all places, wonders whether there is a race-based factor at work here and uses the caucus-non-caucus breakdown to re-raise the question of a so-called "Bradley effect."

And in other political news…
Chris Cillizza, whose "The Fix" column runs on washingtonpost.com, is one of the best at watching and ranking the Senate and House races. He periodically runs "The Line" in which he lists the 10 Senate seats most likely to change party hands. In today's update, Cillizza has moved Minnesota's Senate seat (currently held by Republican Norm Coleman) from the sixth to the fifth most likely.

Cillizza doesn't mention the electability issues that bother many DFLers about Al Franken. He mentions Mike Ciresi only in passing and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer not at all. He respects Coleman's savvy, but mostly seems impressed with Franken the fund-raiser. Here's his testimony:

"Many months ago, we wrote a piece about whether the candidacy of comedian/entertainer Al Franken is a nightmare or a dream for Senate Democrats. At the moment, it appears it is the latter. He continues to raise huge amounts of money — nearly $2 million over the final three months of 2007 — and draws rave reviews for the grassroots operation he is building. And, in a recent independent poll Franken had a solid edge over attorney, and 2000 Senate candidate, Mike Ciresi (D) and even carried a narrow margin over Sen. Norm Coleman (R). Coleman is one of the savviest incumbents in the Senate and won't go easily or quietly. But, Franken is off to a very strong start."

On a more national note, nine of the 10 seats that Cillizza rates as most likely to change hands are currently held by Republicans.

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Comments (7)

It seems to me that endorsements have impact that depends more on the status the endorser holds with the listener than upon the office he or she holds.

For example, I believe an Oprah can get lots more votes than a Ted Kennedy, no matter the voter's location.

And politicians are not famous for having high status in the eyes of voters. Perhaps in the eyes of the pols, though.

And this from the (populist) state that brought us "Where's the beef?".

I'd take dollars over endorsements any day.
In the old days (as John Olson pointed out) endorsements were backed up by money and political machines.
Oprah and assorted Kennedys didn't seem to help Obama much in California; I'd say his success is more due to his ability to mobilize (young) activists, which can be potent in caucuses.
This in turn is probably due to his TV performances.
He's been less impressive in primary elections, which does not bode well for the general election.

Paul, your points are well-taken.

If I were advising McCain or Huckabee, I would be praying for Sen. Clinton to be the nominated opponent so every flaw of Clinton XLII is trotted out in an all-out effort to prevent a Clinton XLIV from happening. With Sen. Obama, the dynamics would be very different and more challenging for the Republicans.

A foreshadowing may be the current squeeze in the Clinton coffers. Obama would stand to raise the money and interest of a whole new generation of voters who feel they have been disenfranchised up until now.

What does matter -- and how might endorsements matter? Another angle of vision on the campaign is the neglected variable of political culture, but it seems especially important in this election (in this view, endorsements matter to the extent they help amplify a message that holds potential to resonate deeply in the political culture of particular states).

The week before Super Tuesday, as soon as Obama’s message gained sufficient volume to be heard in Minnesota–-and as people began paying attention–-it resonated through the political culture of the state like a deep note vibrating in a base drum. The Humphrey Institute-Minnesota Public Radio poll found Hillary Clinton to be ahead of Obama by seven points in the period from Jan. 20 to 27. But on Feb. 5, when Minnesota Democrats held their caucuses, Obama won 67 delegates to Clinton’s 32––a phenomenal change.

A map of the states Obama has won handily across the midwest and the south shows an overlap not simply with caucuses -- but with populist histories and political cultures that emphasize the agency of ordinary citizens. This is a striking fit with "yes we can," and "we are the ones we've been waiting for" -- Obama's stress on civic agency. Even though it has yet to be fleshed out in substantive policy terms, Obama support may be a harbinger of the return of populism.

I develop this argument in the daily By the People Blog of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship,
http://blog.lib.umn.edu/cdc/bythepeople/

Harry Boyte, Humphrey Institute

I would agree that a celebrity of Oprah's status will, on her worst day, garner more voters than a fellow like Sen. Kennedy on his best day.

In today's politics, however, the only endorsements at the national level that are going to really count with the candidates are those that can deliver large sums of money. Add in the ability of those incumbents in Washington with little or no opposition in their home districts or state to redirect their resources into areas with viable candidates where it can make a difference and you have the recipe for maintaining the "politics as usual" status inside the Beltway. That's where Mr. Franken holds a decided advantage over Mr. Ciresi and Mr. Nelson-Pallmeyer.

In years gone by, union endorsements meant big money and lots of volunteers to do the campaigning grunt work. Times have changed as the influence of many of the large unions has shrunk along with their membership. Business has always found ways to get their dollars to their candidates despite several episodes of "campaign reform." The real restriction on many large, publicly-held businesses contributing has been (and continues to be) institutional shareholders demanding that management squeeze every last nickel into their earnings or face the consequences.

This opens the doors for celebrities such as Oprah to become more relevant in the eyes of the candidates. On the Republican side, the CEOs, investment bankers and other powerful individuals will write the checks, but will be nonexistent with respect the day-to-day party apparatus, nor will most want any kind of media attention. Contributors on both sides view campaign contributions as investments--if their candidate(s) are elected, the expectation is to deliver; a classic "quid pro quo."

John, this is the paradox.
Despite the appearance of popularity that Obama gives through his rally and caucus performances, he actually appears to be better at raising money than attracting voters.
I think that the Ohio and Texas primaries in March will tell us a lot.