Note: This article originally appeared in the Jan. 24 edition of The Wall Street Journal.
Do endorsements matter? Politicians certainly think so, and they spend loads of time courting party elites and opinion-makers. So far, though, 2012 has shown how the politics of anointment and appointment can fail.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley flopped mightily in trying to deliver her state for Mitt Romney. Evangelical leaders held a summit to get the Palmetto State to back their new choice, Rick Santorum, but he fared much worse than Romney. Newt Gingrich knows the feeling — New Hampshire’s supposedly dominant Union Leader newspaper huffed and puffed for Newt and got him less than 10% of the vote.
But it’s easy to cherry-pick examples to prove the folly of endorsements. In some circumstances, they can make a substantial difference.
Throughout American history, presidencies have been created by the laying on of incumbent hands. Thomas Jefferson effectively passed the presidency to his friend and confidant, James Madison. Andrew Jackson handed his populist democracy off to an unlikely dandy, Martin Van Buren, in 1836. Few would have imagined the studious and portly William Howard Taft as president until Theodore Roosevelt picked him in 1908. More recently, George H.W. Bush might not have been elected president without Ronald Reagan’s blessing. Madison, Van Buren, Taft and Bush all got their predecessor’s third term — when popular, presidents have extraordinary powers.
What about little-known state legislators and local sheriffs? Even low-level backing can attract the cameras and generate a positive story. But this can backfire if candidates overplay their hands, as Jon Huntsman did when his campaign hinted at a “major” announcement in Florida. Speculation naturally centered on former Gov. Jeb Bush. Not quite. Huntsman got only his son, Jeb Jr., and the media’s letdown showed in the coverage.
Then there’s Hollywood glitz and glamour — good for attracting donors to fund-raisers, but risky if the stars outshine the candidates in public. When celebrities draw more adoration from the crowd than the fellow on the ballot, the candidate is diminished, not enhanced. Better to have one enthusiastic pop icon in your entourage than a tour bus full of hangers-on. Chuck Norris did wonders for Mike Huckabee in 2008, and now he’s with Newt. As they say, Norris doesn’t endorse — he tells America how it’s going to be.
Candidates try to use endorsements to convey a sense of inevitability. In the days leading up to South Carolina, Romney rolled out endorsements from Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Odds are, the vast majority of South Carolinians had never heard of either. These vice presidential possibilities probably impressed Romney a great deal more than they did Palmetto Republicans.
Even more than Democrats, Republicans typically nominate a candidate that party elites support. In “The Party Decides,” political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller analyzed endorsements made prior to the Iowa caucuses in presidential primary contests from 1980 to 2004. They found that the candidate who had won the biggest share of endorsements won the eventual nomination in nine of 10 competitive contests (the exception was Democrat John Kerry in 2004). On the GOP side, the eventual nominees all won a strong plurality of endorsements.
Not surprisingly, given Romney’s position as front-runner and the fear that many Republican officeholders have of sharing a ballot with Gingrich or Ron Paul, the former Massachusetts governor has a long lead in endorsements from elected officials. According to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Romney has the backing of 72 members of Congress, versus a combined 17 for the other candidates.
This is good news for Romney. Gingrich is attempting to stir the populism of the GOP base by railing against “elites,” but many voters welcome guidance in intra-party contests. In a general election, voters have the invaluable shorthand cue of the party label. But in a nominating contest, all candidates have the same party label. How to choose just one? Differences in personality, background and policy help, but so does a candidate’s association with other well-known party figures. People want to puzzle out which candidate comes closest to their kind of Republican or Democrat.
Non-endorsements can send powerful signals to voters as well. For decades, leading Southern Democrats practiced “golden silence” in presidential years, refusing to endorse their party’s presidential nominees. This was a green light to voters that it was acceptable to support a Republican for the White House. In 1960, President Eisenhower wanted Vice President Nixon to succeed him, but he damaged Nixon’s campaign when asked what major decisions in his administration Nixon had influenced. “If you give me a week, I might think of one,” said Ike. The comment ended up in one of John Kennedy’s TV ads.
Could non-endorsements end up mattering in 2012, too? Despite decades on Capitol Hill and four years as speaker of the House, Gingrich has only 11 congressional endorsements, five of them from Georgians. Will rank-and-file Republicans see that as a warning about Gingrich’s volatility and management style — or as a badge of honor indicating the anti-establishment, transformational credentials they seek? The answer may determine this election.