Do Endorsements Matter?

Do Endorsements Matter?


Which, if any, endorsements made a difference for the Democrats?

One of the major features of explaining the primary victories of either candidate in any given state or territory, alongside demographics or previous voting history, has been the litany of endorsements that are collected along the way. However, when we compare the geographical and chronological spread of these endorsements, we see that they frequently appear to be entirely independent of their chosen candidate’s success in that state. I wanted to take a brief look at the endorsements in the Democratic race that have proved to be genuinely useful, those that proved to be significantly underwhelming, and those that could yet have a key role to play.

Where a candidate was already expected to win a state, it is difficult to discern the impact of a high-profile supporter. For this reason, I haven’t made any discussion of powerful allies like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) or Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) – I feel confident that Obama and Clinton would have won their home states even without this support, without wishing to deny its importance in other ways.

The following heroes and villains of ‘Endorsement Top Trumps’ are included based on the extent to which they helped their chosen candidate exceed expectations, or the extent to which they failed to deliver a state that should have been within their candidate’s grasp. It could be that endorsements follow popular support, rather than lead it, but the timing of an early endorsement still seems to carry some weight. I have factored in the key turning points in the Democratic race, but not made mention of the endorsements that may have had a national effect that is simply too large and complex to measure (though Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton would probably share that prize).

I think Hillary Clinton owes a debt to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, as there were moments in which she could well have lost the state – Obama beat her in fundraising in California prior to Super Tuesday, and loss of this state to him could have proved the fateful blow give the string of primaries that followed. Feinstein’s support in California came early, and its help allowed her the narrative of ‘Big State winner’, which was all she had to cling to after Super Tuesday. Governors Ted Strickland and Ed Rendell deserves similar credit for suring up support in Ohio and Pennsylvania respectively, though in the latter case the Mayors of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were also key endorsements. Indeed, perhaps the two most important endorsements of Hillary’s whole campaign were Mayors: Martin Chavez in Albuquerque (NM) is a key supporter, and for want of his support (at that time, Gov. Bill Richardson chose to maintain official silence) Clinton would most likely have lost this, her most narrow win. The top prize however goes to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, whose endorsement of Clinton was perhaps the key factor in her taking Massachusetts.

Underperformers for Clinton are eclipsed by the singular failure of former Governor Tom Vilsack to deliver the Iowa caucus. That failure, in light of her weakness in the state (Bill Clinton had never campaigned competitively there, so she lacked a grass-roots organisation to match Edwards or Obama), gave Obama the chance to launch his campaign, and he has gone from strength to strength ever since. That vote probably cost Vilsack a shot at the Vice-Presidency.

Obama has won key support across the nation from major political figures, but the endorsement-heroes are less obvious than for Clinton. The support of Gov. Tim Kaine in Virginia cannot be overstated, coming as it did only two days before that state’s contest, and preserving his clean sweep for the month following Super Tuesday. The other key endorsements for me were again Mayors – Frank Cownie from Des Moines, Iowa, and from Austin, Texas, the aptly named Will Wynn. Both of these proved to be important sources of Democratic voters in caucus contests for Obama that ultimately gave him two of the biggest successes of the campaign thus far: Iowa and Texas (the latter being decided by the caucus, with the primary having gone to Clinton).

The important thing to remember about Mayors is that, especially for caucus states, the GOTV (Get Out The Vote) strategy is essential – this is retail politics, conducted at a highly-localised level. In that sense, local politicians with a familiar name are perhaps better placed to support their candidate on election day than the distant call of a US Senator from Washington DC appearing on television.

Not all of Obama’s endorsements have come off, of course. Massachusetts should have been a winnable state for him – highly liberal, educated, and somewhere that he and his wife had spent several years networking whilst at Harvard. With more universities per capita than any other city on earth, Boston should have been reasonably fertile territory, especially with the support of the Commonwealth’s African-American Governor Duval Patrick, and both US Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. Whilst their endorsements have helped in other ways (demographically, Kennedy is still important to many Catholic and Hispanic voters, and Kerry handed over the DNC’s Masterlist of Donors from 2004, which may explain Obama’s significant fundraising advantage nationally), it must have been disappointing to fail to win this Democratic stronghold. Senator Bob Casey’s endorsement was similarly insufficient to deliver the Keystone State.

Institutional endorsements have garnered attention as well, with Clinton supported by Emily’s List and Obama securing an official endorsement from ‘’ (and the general support of the top Democratic blog ‘Daily Kos’ and his readership). Newspapers such as the New York Times and Concord Monitor helped Clinton survive early scares, though the Des Moines Register’s endorsement of her was unusually inefficacious. Obama was most helped in print by the Baltimore Sun (success in the North East had eluded him for much of the campaign) and Houston Chronicle, but the LA Times and Boston Globe failed to swing sufficient voters to his cause in their respective markets.

Looking forward in time, in the unlikely event of Clinton’s candidacy remaining viable until Denver, then she will have, above all others, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana to thank. Losing that primary would have clearly doomed her, coming on the same day as a crushing defeat in North Carolina, which was probably independent of the support of former Senator John Edwards. The remaining endorsements that both candidates would love to secure include Senators Joe Biden (DE) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA), DNC Chair Howard Dean (VT), and of course, former Vice-President Al Gore (TN). These will come after voters in the party have already made up their minds, but these endorsements would help secure the most powerful constituency of all – the Superdelegates. Once these mover-and-shakers line up in public behind a candidate, the contest will be officially over.


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