Commentary: Political endorsements don't always pan out

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT

Candidates love endorsements.

At least they love it when someone endorses them rather than the other guy. It validates them. It makes them feel good about themselves. They're certain it moves them closer to winning.

But does it? I assume it makes them feel good about themselves. But does it help them win?

It must, right? Why else would the scramble for endorsements remain a common fixture in American political campaigns. Of course campaigns do a lot of things based more on tradition than strategy. They fill out endless questionnaires for groups that have probably already decided to support or oppose them. And they spend their evenings at forums where the candidates outnumber the voters.

Endorsements do carry with them a certain logic. If a popular or well-known or influential person (or maybe all three) announces support, then undecided voters might take a closer look. That's especially helpful in primaries where hard Democrats and hard Republicans might have more than one good choice.

A Western Washington University political scientist has looked at the ways voters sort through initiatives and believes endorsements are important cues. In fact, says Todd Donovan, voters do what legislators do when they are faced with a large number of complex decisions — they seek shortcuts like who is for it, who is against it, who is putting money on which side and what is going on with the economy.

So it makes sense that the same voters might do the same when choosing between candidates. They look for cues like party and endorsements.

Still, there is risk. In August, the Pew Research Center did a survey for the National Journal. It found that a plurality of voters didn't care who had endorsed a candidate. Of those who did care, however, about half said having the support of President Obama would make them more likely to vote for a candidate and half said it would make them less likely.

Then last week, a Harris Interactive survey that seems to have squeezed an answer out of more voters found a similar divide — 45 percent said they would be less likely to support an Obama-backed candidate and 42 percent would be more likely.

The most endorsement-prone Republican — former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — had a more-polarizing effect. Pew reported that 18 percent would be more-likely to support her favored candidates and 38 percent would be less likely. Harris showed a similar split but again with fewer voters claiming they would not be influenced.

Obama's support is much-more influential among Democrats, just as Palin is among Republicans. That suggests an endorsement is valuable in contested party primaries. But it might be wise for a candidate in a close general election race to steer clear of some endorsements. This is especially true in an angry election like this one when the most prominent politicians are also the most polarizing.

That's why a candidate might use the president or Palin to privately raise money among the faithful but perhaps not in more public settings where independents and the undecided are watching. And that's why the other side will try to connect a rival with an unpopular supporter.

Once the general election arrives, endorsements fall into a trio of categories. There's the "well, yeah" endorsement, those obvious testimonials such as when the Democratic governor endorses a Democratic candidate. There are the headshakers when the primary loser who just spent the spring and summer bashing the eventual winner tries to convince us that the winner is a fabulous candidate after all.

And then there's the man-bites-dog variety such as when a liberal endorses a Republican or a primary loser supports the nominee of the other party. These can be helpful among independents seeking evidence of bipartisanship.

Still, it remains a mostly positive form of campaigning — a rarity in an era of hit pieces, push polling and dirty TV ads. We should be relieved when we hear someone advise us who to vote for rather than who to vote against.