Endorsements can backfire

We’re in the season of endorsements. Sarah Palin travels to Arizona to campaign alongside John McCain, anointing him with her endorsement. McCain is passing it forward by sojourning to California to sidle up next to Carly Fiorina, conferring his support onto her Senate bid.

A lot of thought and polling goes into this endorsement process, and most of it is useless. Voters just don’t take the bait like they once did. If anything, the elaborate rituals of giving and receiving endorsements just makes the participants look and feel like politicians, and politicians aren’t in fashion anymore.

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I see candidates announcing an insurgent populist campaign that will “throw the rascals out,” but then they stomp on their own message by touting their endorsements from prominent politicians, standing on stages and at rallies day after day, arm in arm with the rascals. Is it any wonder that endorsements are so disappointing?

Voters perceive endorsements as transparently transactional. “Of course Sarah Palin endorsed John McCain,” they’ll snort. “She’s just paying him back for giving her the vice presidential nomination and a lifetime of TV appearances and book deals.” When discussing endorsements with ordinary voters, I am always amazed that they use the explicit back-scratching language: He scratched her back; she scratched his. Given that cynicism, should we expect much from most endorsements? Well, no.

Are there any circumstances where endorsements are effective? I have seen a few. Every so often there is a figure — usually someone who’s nonpartisan or apolitical — who becomes a trustworthy referent for voters. Doc Bowen, the beloved former governor of Indiana, once wore this mantle. Hank Brown, the former Republican congressman, U.S. senator and university president, seems to have the right stuff when it comes to endorsing. In one ballot measure campaign, I found that the endorsement of the local Habitat for Humanity organization was an extremely credible endorser of our “Vote NO” campaign against an anti-growth initiative.

Polling the impact of potential endorsers is more art than science. You cannot simply look at an endorser’s favorability. Just knowing that Sarah Palin has a favorable image among Arizona conservatives doesn’t guarantee that they’ll follow her instructions in a Republican primary. Some pollsters like to ask whether voters will be “more likely or less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed” by someone like Sarah Palin. This typically — I think — underestimates the potential effect. Some voters never want to admit that anyone holds such sway over their electoral decisions. I have started asking directly about how much influence or sway an endorser wields as a voter makes up his or her mind. Voters seem more open to acknowledging influence than confessing to being wholly controlled by another.

In weighing endorsements, pollsters and strategists almost never try to measure the negative side effects of an endorsement. This may be particularly relevant when it comes to polarizing figures. In some circles, both John McCain and Sarah Palin represent this possibility. Both are popular with a goodly number of devout admirers, and their influence may sway some of those who like them, but both also have a lot of baggage. There are Tea Party types who will vote against a candidate simply because John McCain endorsed him. For the hardcore haters, McCain represents everything that is wrong with Republican politics and they don’t like his values or actions, so they’ll even turn against his endorsees.

The greatest impact of endorsements may be in the minds of the campaign participants. So much time is spent strategizing your own endorsements that you conclude they must be important. Similarly, your opponents spend so much time also thinking about endorsements — theirs and yours — that they know they are important. So go ahead and get into the head of an opponent. Roll out another endorsement tomorrow

Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.