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But Dean fell to third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, so they proved as influential as then-Gov. John Engler’s endorsement of George W. Bush in the 2000 Michigan GOP primary.
Michigan, we were told repeatedly back then, was the Bush campaign’s “firewall,” an absolutely impenetrable barrier that would stop anyone not named Bush from winning the state’s Republican primary. The firewall certainly looked ominous, given the enthusiastic support of Bush by Engler, a politically powerful governor who was both a top strategist and booster of the Texan.
Bush lost Michigan (garnering 43 percent to Sen. John McCain’s [R-Ariz.] 51 percent), in part because some state voters wanted to embarrass Engler, reflecting the limits of an endorsement.
The reason that endorsements don’t matter much is that presidential contests are such high-profile, visible fights that voters can draw their own opinions of the candidates. You either like Clinton or you don’t. You can make your own mind up about it. You don’t need some celebrity or politician telling you what to do.
The endorsements are intended, of course, to create an impression of support, either among key subgroups of the electorate —blacks, evangelicals, Hispanics, party insiders, home-schoolers, environmentalists, conservatives, labor unions, etc. — or in the electorate at large. It’s the classic effort to create a bandwagon, to establish the inevitability of your victory.
But the truth of the matter is that only a few people are persuaded by endorsements in White House contests. And sometimes endorsements can backfire, undercutting a candidate’s core appeal and message, or creating another target for the candidates’ opponents. (Those Thomas Ravenel and Sen. David Vitter [R-La.] endorsements for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani don’t look quite as good as they once did, huh?)
So let the candidates roll out their list of state legislators, city council officials, dogcatchers and “activists” who support them. Just remember that only those few people who have a campaign treasury under their control or real fundraising clout, a near-unique ability to motivate and mobilize real people, or unusual influence in Iowa are truly important supporters.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.