CHICAGO—Word trickles out from a campaign that a “major endorsement” is expected. Then the name of the endorser is breathlessly leaked. Finally the endorser emerges - at a rally, conference call, or simply by releasing a statement—praising the candidate as the finest American leader since George Washington.
With the primary season now fully engaged, the endorsement game is following quickly behind. Barack Obama on Thursday trumpeted his backing from Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee. Hillary Clinton a day earlier picked up the support of Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada, a nice trophy given the key role of her state’s caucuses.
On the Republican side, John McCain, fresh from an emphatic win in New Hampshire, was endorsed Wednesday by Jim Fouts, mayor of Warren, Mich. That may not sound like much, but McCain hopes it helps him knock off Mitt Romney in the Michigan primary. Romney countered with an endorsement by Domino’s pizza founder Tom Monaghan, a champion of conservative Catholic causes.
But question remains: Do any of these endorsements matter?
Some argue that few voters make up their minds based on the backing of political leaders.
“Early on in the campaign, endorsements are helpful to credential someone as being legitimate, as being a front-runner, as having momentum,” said John Lapp, a Democratic consultant not affiliated with a presidential campaign. “But as the primaries go on, endorsements from political leaders mean less and less.”
That’s not to say they serve no purpose. A high-profile nod can convey a sense of momentum, and someone like Kerry can provide access to an extensive e-mail list, among other things.
Following their split decision in Iowa and New Hampshire, Obama and Clinton are both avidly seeking endorsements. But for Obama, it’s a particularly pivotal moment.
Many Democrats have painful memories of Al Gore endorsing Howard Dean in 2004, only to see Dean’s candidacy collapse. Eager to avoid a similar embarrassment, some Democrats had been waiting to gauge Obama’s performance in the first two contests.
Now Obama’s supporters are arguing that he has proven he can win. In addition to Kerry, Obama in recent days has won the backing of Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Jackson, Rep. George Miller of California and former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.
As an establishment candidate, Clinton lined up top backers long ago, which she used to good effect following her New Hampshire victory. Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Maria Cantwell of Washington and Bob Menendez of New Jersey all took to the phones Wednesday to assure reporters that Clinton had momentum in their states.
Endorsements also can be intended to send a specific message. Monaghan’s support of Romney may have reassured anti-abortion activists that Romney was reliable despite his past support of abortion rights. “I believe he will stand firm on the pro-life issues and for the traditional family values that our country was founded on,” Monaghan said, in case anyone missed the point.
Similarly, evangelical leader Pat Robertson and business leader Steve Forbes gave a sort of conservative seal of approval to Rudy Giuliani, who is suspected by some Republicans of being insufficiently conservative. In a different vein, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent, campaigned for McCain in New Hampshire, a move designed to appeal to independents in that state.
Candidates who attract relatively few high-profile endorsements, meanwhile, like John Edwards and Mike Huckabee, sometimes portray that as evidence of their anti-establishment credentials.
Endorsements, of course, also require a careful calculus on the part of those doing the endorsing. President Bush, for example, has declined to take sides in the Republican race. Gore, who has won a Nobel Peace Prize since the Dean fiasco, has withheld his sought-after support this time around.
Ultimately, though, it’s not clear how much any of this will matter.
“It will not come down to endorsements,” Lapp said. “It will come down to organization and message.”