Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why most endorsements don't mean squat

It's endorsement season, and you need a scorecard to sort out the enthusiasts. Curt Schilling is pitching for John McCain, Bonnie Raitt is singing for John Edwards, Magic Johnson is playing for Hillary Clinton, Oprah and Chris Rock and Ken Burns are vetting Barack Obama, Chuck Norris hearts Mike Huckabee, odd couple Robert Duvall and Pat Robertson dig Rudy Giuliani, the First Lady of Iowa is touring with Hillary, the Des Moines Register has blessed both Hillary and McCain, who in turn got the nod of the Boston Globe, which also came out for Obama...and this random sampling doesn't include all the lawmakers and religious leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina who are far less famous than journeyman actor Judge Reinhold, who has endorsed Bill Richardson.

The thing is, most endorsements don't mean squat.

Since voters have easy access to so much information about presidential candidates, they hardly need to be advised by a celebrity or a politician on how they should cast their ballots. Does it really matter, for instance, that ex-Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt has come out for Hillary? Not even Gephardt thinks so; as he remarked not long ago, "I'm a has-been politician, so I don't know that I can do anything more than bring my own vote, but maybe I can get my family to vote the right way."

Here are my other rules for this quadrennial ritual:

Even a prominent endorser can't save a flawed endorsee. Witness what happened four years ago. With the Iowa caucuses on the horizon, Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean. Shortly thereafter, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin endorsed Dean as well. The latter, in particular, was ballyhooed in the press as a major coup; as a Wall Street Journal reporter told NPR on Jan. 10, 2004, "(Harkin) has got a political organization that can help pull some of the voters out...This is a big boost for Dean as he moves toward the finish line." But in the end Harkin's imprimatur meant nothing. Iowa's Democrats judged Dean to be unelectable, and he never recovered.

Endorsers with baggage aren't necessarily much help to their endorsees. We'll have to wait and see whether renegade Democrat Joe Lieberman boosts John McCain in New Hampshire, but I'm skeptical. Lieberman, who endorsed McCain yesterday, is supposed to help McCain attract New Hampshire's independent voters; the problem is, Lieberman (like McCain) is a staunch war hawk on Iraq, and independents, in New Hampshire and elsewhere, have largely bailed on the war. Moreover, Lieberman is hardly an iconic figure in New Hampshire; lest we forget, as a 2004 presidential candidate he finished fifth in the Democratic primary, with nine percent of the vote. (He tried to spin the results by saying he was tied for third, but New Hampshire effectively finished him off.)

Endorsers who step on their own tongues wind up embarrassing their endorsees. Andrew Young, the former civil rights activist, congressman, and mayor of Atlanta, has chosen Hillary over Obama. But here's how he explained his reasoning: "Bill (Clinton) is every bit as black as Barack - he's probably gone with more black women than Barack." I bet the Clintons were thrilled with that one.

Endorsers who are presumed to be big shots can't necessarily deliver their own states. During the 2000 Republican primaries, Michigan GOP governor John Engler was supposed to deliver his state for his guy, George W. Bush. Engler reputedly had a lot of political clout on his home turf, and Michigan was therefore deemed to be a "firewall" for Bush. But after nine years in office, Engler's popularity had begun to wane, and Michigan voters were not inclined to follow his lead. Bush wound up losing the state to McCain, by eight percentage points. And Engler later wound up getting bounced from Bush's list of running mates. (As for Tom Harkin, in the aforementioned '04 Iowa caucuses, he was not universally popular among Democrats. I remember asking Don Hewitt, an Iowa farmer, whether Harkin's endorsement of Howard Dean had swayed him toward Dean. Hewitt's response: "I'd like to get Tom Harkin down here and kick his ass.")

Endorsers who can't even speak for their own organizations are probably of little value. Last week, Mike Huckabee, who wants conservative voters to believe that he too is sufficiently tough on illegal immigrants, announced that he had secured the endorsement of Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minutemen (the activist group that believes in sealing and policing the border). Gilchrist went to Iowa to deliver the requisite praise, and Huckabee said he was honored to have him. But now it turns out that Gilchrist was virtually acting alone, and that the internecine Minutemen movement (which has all kinds of independent offshoots and non-profit components) considers Huckabee to be "pro-amnesty," and therefore unworthy of consideration. Which means that Gilchrist's usefulness to Huckabee has already expired.

Endorsers without a ground game can't deliver any votes. For instance, McCain's top man in South Carolina is Senator Lindsay Graham, but he doesn't have the kind of grassroots organization that can pull voters to the ballot box in a GOP primary. Strom Thurmond used to have that kind of local pull, but he finally bowed to the dictates of mortality at age 100.

Yes, there are rare instances when endorsements can indeed matter - particularly if the timing and cirumstances are right. John Edwards may well have finished a strong second in the '04 Iowa caucuses because he won the late endorsement of the Des Moines Register. And in this campaign, despite my initial doubts, Barack Obama might benefit from Oprah's endorsement, because she has arrived at a time when he is already being viewed more favorably by black voters, and when he's preparing for the January contest in South Carolina -the first Democratic primary with a large black electorate, roughly 47 percent of the vote. More importantly, Oprah has crossover appeal to whites, and her presence underscores the current story line about Obama's surge in the Democratic race.

But these are exceptions. Who really cares that twice-failed GOP candidate Steve Forbes has endorsed Rudy? Or that New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez has endorsed Hillary? Or that Kevin Bacon is in Iowa for Edwards? Or that ex-Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey is boosting Hillary?

In fact, when Kerrey talks the way he did on Sunday, seemingly trying to flatter Hillary's rival, while nevertheless spreading the negative subliminal message of the far right - "I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim" - he's probably no help to Hillary. See rule number three, above.