Somewhere out in America today, a candidate and his supporters are nervously awaiting the deliberations of a newspaper editorial board. The candidate believes, or at least hopes, that he will receive the endorsement of a widely read, major daily newspaper and this will spark a come-from-behind victory. If only it were that easy.
Endorsements — whether they be from newspapers, unions, associations, organizations, other politicians, or even friends and family — are not all they are cranked up to be. Most campaigns spend far too much time courting endorsers and have precious little to show for their efforts.
Don’t get me wrong. There are few endorsements that I would turn down. But I’ve learned to keep my expectations low when it comes to the electoral potency of endorsements. Endorsements should be the icing on the dessert, but they are no substitute for the main course of paid-media and message.
The over-emphasis on endorsements starts long before the homestretch run. In early benchmark polls, we often ask voters too many questions about the likelihood of their voting for a candidate endorsed by newspaper X or Senator Y. The most reliable polling or focus-group test goes further, asking whether voters will be more or less likely to vote for a candidate after hearing the name and explicit rationale or message offered by the endorser.
Most times when I have tested message-less political endorsements, I observe lots of cynicism, especially if the endorser is a political figure. “Well, of course, Senator Big endorses him; they’re buddies, two Republicans.” Then the voter goes on to describe some sordid deal that he suspects sealed the endorsement. “He probably agreed to raise money for him in return for the endorsement.” Voters may be smarter than we think.
The best-received endorsements I can recall testing came from two sources, either “real people” or legends that transcend mortal politics. The best examples of legends were Otis R. “Doc” Bowen in Indiana and Joe Foss in South Dakota, two former governors. But in both instances, it was not their gubernatorial prowess that made them such effective endorsers. It was their life stories. Bowen was a small-town family practice physician who edged into politics as a local coroner. After serving as governor, he became a medical school faculty member and President Ronald Reagan’s HHS secretary. Foss was a World War II hero who shot down 26 enemy planes and won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Later he became the first commissioner of the old American Football League and was a president of the National Rifle Association.
These two men were beloved, salt-of-the-earth hero types who commanded more respect than any politician could ever expect. To get their endorsements meant something special.
“Real people” can make good endorsers, too. I once recall an endorsement made by an apolitical nun. In a TV ad, she mused that in her line of work you find that there are “givers and takers.” The “givers” genuinely want to help while the “takers” help only to get something in return. She went on to label the candidate she endorsed a genuine giver. It was nice. And well received. But not enough for the candidate to win.
That’s the problem with endorsements. They are no substitute for the basic building blocks of a winning coalition: an energized and enthusiastic partisan base and a persuasive issue or message for swing voters.
The best role for endorsers like newspapers is to serve as the referee or traffic cop in a testy contest where charges and counter-charges are flying. The newspaper can step in and clarify truth. This clarification can carry more weight than the simplistic statement that “the Daily Herald recommends candidate Smith.” The paper can tell voters where candidate Jones is wrong.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.