What good are endorsements?

January 5, 2012

Except for providing political journalists with millable grist, what good are endorsements? Obviously, a presidential candidate can’t win his party’s nomination on the power of endorsements alone. If that were the case, as Vanity Fair‘s Todd S. Purdum pointed out last month, Al Gore’s anointment of Howard Dean in 2004 would have worked magic.

Yet candidates continue to whore for endorsements, and other politicians continue to give them for mysterious reasons. Take, for example, John McCain’s endorsement of Mitt Romney yesterday at a New Hampshire campaign stop. McCain doesn’t bother to mask his low regard for Romney, as the New York Times reports today in a piece about the event:

[T]he two men made little eye contact, even when Mr. Romney was introducing Mr. McCain. They shared a stiff, half-hug on stage, patting each other on the back in a perfunctory manner.

Placing the relationship in historical context, the Times explains that in 2008, when both men were running for president, McCain hissed that Romney would say anything to get elected. In a 2008 debate, Romney accused McCain of “dirty tricks” and McCain said Romney didn’t have “the experience and the judgment” to be commander-in-chief.

If endorsements were about reciprocity, McCain would have supported Jon Huntsman this year as Huntsman spurned fellow Mormon Romney in 2008 to support McCain. But endorsements aren’t a matter of deposit and withdrawal. They signal information—some of it quite useless—to the political universe about both the endorser and the endorsee.

According to Purdum, Gore gave Dean his seal of approval as an act of revenge against the Democratic establishment, which he thought had mistreated him in 2000. John Edwards gamed both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 to determine which candidate would give him the best job in exchange for his endorsement should they win the White House. (He chose Obama when the campaign was all but over.) But neither of these endorsements amounted to much. Gore had no organization to throw Dean’s way and Edwards had exhausted his, making the endorsers the only real beneficiaries of their actions.

Surveying the academic literature on political endorsement in a piece for Political Research Quarterly (“Who Wins Nominations and Why? An Updated Forecast of the Presidential Primary Vote,” pdf), Wayne P. Steger writes that endorsements by party elites “serve as cues to party activists, contributors, and the media as to who are the viable and desirable candidates.” These endorsements have real value if the endorser lends his fund-raising talents to the candidate, and attacks the candidate’s rivals, Steger states. Big-name endorsers can also be campaign assets if they go on the hustings for the candidate, talk to reporters and meet with voters.

Endorsements signal the electability candidate, which indicates that McCain’s endorsement would have meant a lot more to Huntsman, who is relatively unknown, than to Romney. But it’s too late to help Huntsman at this stage in the campaign. Viewed cynically—is there any other way?—McCain deliberately endorsed Romney too late, offering it weeks after it could have done Romney any good. This helps explain Romney’s thanks-a-lot-for-nothing-buddy body language at the campaign event. According to the Times, the McCain camp apparently leaked the “secret” endorsement, extracting even that limited value for their boss. If Romney had an ounce of principle, he would have rejected McCain’s nod.

But he doesn’t and he didn’t. Still, the McCain endorsement still has some value to Romney. Although this is Romney’s second run for the presidency, he still isn’t as well-known to the public as McCain, which means that the endorsement could potentially convey to the politically sheltered Romney’s ideological position inside the Republican field. The downside of the endorsement, of course, is that voters who already have a low opinion of McCain will use the new information to vote against Romney. If that doesn’t make your game-theory bunnies hop, how about this? Romney coveted the McCain endorsement not so much for its value to him but to block its potential value for another candidate.

If the contest for endorsements from other politicians translated to political success, Romney should be lapping the other candidates. The Associated Press reported last week that Romney had “collected more than 1,900 endorsements, including conservative activists and current and former elected officials in all 50 states. The list includes four governors, 48 House members and 11 senators.” No other candidate has come close, the AP concluded. That Romney has not broken away suggests that the endorsements 1) aren’t signaling Republican voters in the manner in which they were intended, 2) it’s too early in the campaign to feel the effect of the endorsements, or 3) endorsements are bunk.

Steger found in his research that the Republican elite is more likely to endorse, to do so earlier, and to unite around one or two candidates than is the Democratic elite. Steger, whose paper was published in 2007, found that “Republican elites … rally around a candidate very early in the invisible primary, and that candidate has become the nominee in every open Republican nomination since 1972.” (The “invisible primary” is the politicking that takes place before the Iowa caucus when voter interest is low and media coverage is scant. In 2008, Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucus and John McCain won the New Hampshire primary.) In addition to speaking their minds for Romney, the Republican elite’s wallets have spoken, too. According to the AP today, Romney has collected $32 million in individual contributions compared to Ron Paul’s $12 million, Newt Gingrich’s $3 million, and Rick Santorum’s $1 million.

The contempt McCain and Romney have for one another, as demonstrated in their 2008 debate clash and which time has not healed, makes a mockery of yesterday’s endorsement. In that sense, it’s not much different than any of the other endorsement of convenience the opportunistic politicians trot out this time of the season.


I seek your endorsement at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter had a great invisible primary. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is joined by U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire January 4, 2012, one day after Romney won the Iowa caucus.   REUTERS/Brian Snyder


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I endorse Jack Shafer as the best damn columnist in the contemporary world. This was a brilliant column. Just keep writing, Jack.

Posted by travisolated | Report as abusive

I’m surprised that Jack Shafer does not realize that much of what we see is “political theater”, insomuch that much of what is said during a debate (or campaign) is for public consumption to win the contest in question. Once the camera is off, many leader from opposing parties dine and socialize together. After Romney dropped out in 2008, he endorsed McCain and gave him full personal and staff support against Obama. Endorsements may often carry little weight, but, sometimes, they provide the 1 or 2% that the candidate needs. In recent elections a 1% advantage has not been trivial. I would examine Shafer’s motivations in criticizing endorsements at this juncture–since his analysis has a lot of holes in it.

Posted by SeattleMark952 | Report as abusive

Endorsement by a person’s fellow politicians who have worked with them closely and who can vouch for their integrity is very important to me especially the candidate is an unknown quantity.

I also look to political columnists that I have trusted over the years for guidance.

I am never influenced by newspaper editorials by anonymous media executives. I have no idea if their positions are dictated by what is right for the country or what is right for their company or themselves.

We need a law to stop these smarmy, elitist, arrogant, presumptuous, pathetic, Smarty-Pants-Know-It-Alls meeting in smoke filled back rooms to tell us what we should do.

The punishment … waterboarding … remember waterboarding IS NOT TORTURE.

Posted by davidedenden | Report as abusive