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Kennedy’s Decision to Back Obama Not So Decisive After All

I checked 10 Super Tuesday states with primaries and found that in two of them (Illinois and Arizona), at least half of those polled said that the endorsement was “very important” or “somewhat important.” In another six states (California, Massachusetts, Georgia, Connecticut, New Jersey and New Mexico), 43 percent to 49 percent described the endorsement as very or somewhat important.

At face value, those responses suggest that the endorsement was significant. But if you look deeper, it appears that instead of the endorsement prompting people to vote for Obama, the causality worked in the other direction.

I believe that people who voted for Obama — and would have voted for him anyway — told pollsters that the endorsement was important, even if it actually had no impact on their vote choice.

As Obama supporters, they were excited by the endorsement. Moreover, journalists and talking heads told them the endorsement was a big deal. Given that, when pollsters asked about the endorsement, many respondents said it was important.

Here’s the evidence: In California, according to the exit poll, 19 percent of Democrats said Kennedy’s endorsement was “very important.” Yet almost half of those people (45 percent) voted for Clinton. Another 50 percent in California said Kennedy’s endorsement was “somewhat important,” yet almost half (47 percent) voted for Clinton.

In other words, almost half of voters in California who said the Kennedy endorsement was important didn’t vote for Obama. And that trend appeared everywhere else as well, thereby undermining the responses.

In only two states, Georgia and Illinois, did voters who said the endorsement was “very important” go overwhelmingly for Obama. And in both cases, other factors than the Kennedy endorsement (race and home-state loyalty) seemed far more important.

It’s wise to be very skeptical about survey questions that ask voters to identify their own motives, and the Kennedy question is a perfect example of why.

Ultimately, the Kennedy endorsement wasn’t important. It didn’t change things. That doesn’t surprise me. As I have argued before, this is the kind of race where voters look at the candidates and make up their own minds.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.

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