Endorsements Matter in 2008

The conventional wisdom always says that endorsements don't matter. Well, it's wrong. Sen. John McCain wouldn't have won the GOP Florida primary without them, and the Democratic race wouldn't be where it is—with Sen. Barack Obama poised to take the lead—had not one endorsement gone sour (Bill Clinton's of his wife, Hillary) and another fanned a fire (the Kennedy clan's of Obama). Looking back, it may be that Mike Huckabee's 15 minutes of fame came courtesy of Chuck Norris. Wednesday McCain gets an extra day of great publicity as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani endorses him. And the big question on the Democratic side is whom John Edwards will support now that he's dropping out of the race.

I'm told that Edwards's decision was very closely held, meaning he and his wife alone knew the score. As of Tuesday morning he still had an ambitious schedule planned in the Super Tuesday states. But Tuesday afternoon he notified his staff that he wanted to go to New Orleans instead. Everyone knew what that meant. That devastated city was where Edwards had begun his campaign in the name of the poor and forgotten. Now he would return to say that his campaign had failed, but that the cause lived on. As for his endorsement plans, they remain unclear. His representatives had been reaching out to Obama's high command for weeks, but I am told that they rebuffed him. A top aide to Edwards cautioned not to assume that Edwards would endorse Obama. "He's gained a lot of respect for Hillary, for her toughness in all that she has been through." That could just be a negotiating ploy on Edwards's part. We'll see.

If the 2008 campaign has proved anything so far, it is that endorsements do matter. In fact, they may well matter more than they have in decades. Voters are too busy, distracted and ideologically confused to make fateful political decisions on their own. They are looking for guidance. And now the race is entering a phase—Super-Duper-Mega-Tsunami Tuesday—when endorsements may prove indispensible.

With 22 states holding primaries and caucuses, no grass-roots organization, including Obama's superb one, can make things happen entirely from the ground up. And "earned" media coverage and paid advertising can carry you only so far. You need what amounts to a franchise operation, which is what an endorsement is, or can be.

You also need character witnesses. Unlike the early, intimate campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire, voters can't examine the candidates up close, like a piece of fruit in the market. And with a resurgence of ethnic-identity politics, especially on the Democratic side, candidates need endorsers to give them entrée across social borders.

In our ever more celebrity-obsessed culture, why wouldn't political endorsements matter?

Look at Florida. McCain was widely, and correctly, perceived to have lost last week's MSNBC debate to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who waxed almost eloquent about his experience in dealing with economics even as McCain was admitting that he knew little about it. Voters, especially in Florida, are desperately worried about the economy, and yet they went for McCain in the end.

One reason is that Romney overreached; he was too nasty by half. But the main reason is that McCain got the last-minute but well-timed backing of two key Florida Republicans, Sen. Mel Martinez and Gov. Charlie Crist. The McCain campaign also scoured the state for other endorsers, no matter how ancient or obscure. It was old-fashioned, and it worked. Martinez is not very popular statewide, but he stands tall in the Cuban-American community; according to NBC exit polls, those voters went overwhelmingly for McCain. Gov. Crist is distrusted by many conservatives, but he is wildly popular overall in the state. By contrast, Romney had the backing of Jeb Bush's organization, but not the visible, active testimony of Jeb himself.

The Kennedys' endorsement of Obama was not only a stirring moment, full of historical resonance, it was and is an organizing and advertising tool. Within 24 hours Obama's campaign was up with an elegant, understated ad featuring Caroline Kennedy. It is and will be playing in many of those Super Tuesday states. Sen. Ted Kennedy will barnstorm as only he can. There are other Kennedys—too numerous to mention—who will do the same.

The Kennedys give Obama a calling card with the kind of voters who have formed the core of Sen. Clinton's support so far: older, working-class Democrats who closely identify with the party. The Kennedys also help Obama sell himself in the Latino community, not only because of the family history of championing minorities, but because, as Catholics, they share with Latino leaders a belief in the church's role in welfare and social uplift.

Bill Clinton has proved the power of endorsements too—for better and for worse. Exit polls show that many voters are supporting his wife in part because they want him back in the vicinity of the White House. They remember the Clinton years as economically good ones. But his divisive tactics in South Carolina (which he was baited into in some cases) drove African-Americans into Obama's camp in droves. Some cynics think that this is just what Hillary Clinton needed to win the nomination. Those analysts don't understand the Democratic Party, and they don't understand Obama's skill at escaping the political stereotypes into which others might want to lock him.

Does Rudy's endorsement of McCain mean much? In delegate terms, certainly not. Rudy raised and spent perhaps $50 million and won one delegate—some poor soul in Nevada. But Rudy is still "America's mayor," and he conducted himself with class, at least in the presidential campaign. He will help burnish McCain's profile as a terror fighter, and he will free McCain of any need to campaign in the New York metropolitan area this week.

Who's next? Arnold Schwarzenegger in California? Well, McCain has been making a play for him and, since he is a semi-Kennedy, Obama may dream of getting him. But Arnold is playing it cool. If current New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg runs as an independent, look for the Governator to endorse him. They've been spending a lot of time together.