The power of endorsements

Salena Zito
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Posted: May 06, 2007 12:00 AM
The power of endorsements

The scramble for political endorsements for the 2008 presidential campaigns may go unnoticed by the average voter. But for candidates seeking them, those public declarations by any current or former elected official are a critically important political coup.

Your average news organization will tell you their e-mail in-boxes are flooded daily with endorsement announcements from all of the presidential candidates. Whether the campaigns are large or small, frontrunner or irrelevant, flush with money or living on a prayer – as soon as an endorsement is clinched, an announcement from the campaign will appear.

And while the endorsement that a candidate most lusts after is from a sitting U.S. senator or governor, or a former U.S president, those elite groups are a difficult commitment to snag this early out.

The early endorsements generally come from the state and local levels.

So why the rush to announce that a group of state legislators who have no clout in Washington are coming out to support your candidate?

Well, before you think the endorsement process will come down to whether or not the local dog-catcher favors a presidential candidate, there is a legitimate reason for all this.

Candidates look for endorsements that round-out their resumes by providing credibility on issues on which they are weak. An endorsement also gives them access to donors and political organizations their campaigns can tap into in a particular state or region.

Endorsements can also legitimize a candidate among a select group of voters who care passionately about a core set of concerns, such as social, fiscal or security issues.

Endorsements add infrastructure – political supporters who are passionate about the person endorsing you. Those people then become foot soldiers who circulate petitions, go door to door, and do all of the required grassroots campaigning.

And endorsements give a candidate bona fide credentials within his or her party.

Remember, right now candidates are appealing to a smaller segment of the electorate. Those segments have the power to make a moderate candidate more conservative, or a conservative candidate more acceptable to moderates.

Stephen J. Wayne, American government chairman at Georgetown University in Washington, says early endorsements for the presidential campaigns by themselves do not bring many votes. “But they do add to a candidate's credentials in the sense that most politicians will not endorse candidates with little or no chance to win,” he says.

Isaac Baker, a spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s exploratory campaign, says “endorsements from elected officials are meaningful because they have their fingers on the pulse of voters.” Baker adds that their influence in their own communities can provide helpful access to a network of volunteers and activists.

A lot of this pageantry is about the money, of course. Potential contributors definitely take who’s-supporting-who into account when deciding whether and how much to give.

In December 2003 it was considered stunning when former vice-president Al Gore said he was proud and honored to endorse Howard Dean as the next president. Gore put his weight behind the anti-establishment candidate, bypassing his former running mate, Joe Lieberman, for a man he believed to have the money and energy behind him.

It will be hard to find such a stunner this cycle, since the two former presidents with the most clout, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, each have a personal stake in who will be the next president. For Clinton, it’s his wife, of course; for Gore, who still has not completely ruled out a late jump into the race, it may just be himself.

“Ultimately,” says Clinton spokesman Baker, “it’s the endorsement of the voters that candidates need to earn. And we never lose sight of that.”