Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president was a huge story in the national media.
Dave Espo of The Associated Press said the Senator “is in a position to help Obama court voting groups who so far have tilted [Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton’s [D-N.Y.] way.”
Almost everyone who commented on Kennedy’s Jan. 28 endorsement said it was a big deal. Admittedly, I disagreed, preferring to stay consistent with my column of July 16, 2007, in which I argued that most endorsements in high-profile presidential contests don’t matter much.
Now that last week’s primaries are over, we can see whether the endorsement mattered. We can also evaluate the exit poll question that asked about the impact of the Kennedy endorsement.
Establishing (or disproving) a causal connection between an endorsement and a vote choice is difficult, leaving a lot of room for differing interpretations. But that should not dissuade us from taking a look at the available data.
In a piece published before Kennedy’s formal endorsement, Susan Milligan of The Boston Globe said Kennedy would campaign for Obama by focusing on “Hispanics and labor union members, who are important voting blocs in several Feb. 5 states, including California, New York, New Jersey, Arizona and New Mexico.” Espo made a similar point, though he added “lower-income, older voters” to his list.
Kennedy did indeed travel to those states and try to woo those voters for Obama. In the five states that Milligan mentioned, Clinton won four and is narrowly leading in the fifth (New Mexico). It’s possible, of course, that she would have won them even more convincingly had Kennedy not endorsed and campaigned for Obama, but the outcomes certainly at least suggest the endorsement’s effect was minimal, at best.
The Massachusetts Senator’s greatest potential impact was widely viewed as among Hispanics. Yet it was Clinton who generally won Hispanics, often overwhelmingly.
Clinton carried Hispanics in California (with 69 percent), Arizona (55 percent) and New Jersey (68 percent). In Illinois, Obama’s home state, Clinton drew “only” 49 percent of Hispanics. She ran 8 points better among them than among white voters in the state. And in New Mexico, the site of one of Kennedy’s rallies for Obama, Clinton won Hispanics by 20 points (56 percent to 36 percent), but lost white voters to Obama.
Clinton also won older voters and union members in most states, two other groups that supposedly might be swayed by Kennedy’s support for Obama. Given all of these results, it’s difficult to make the case that Kennedy’s endorsement was important.
Finally, there is the exit poll question that asked Super Tuesday respondents how important the Kennedy endorsement was, and it is to this question that I’ll now turn.