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Candidates tout endorsements, but do they matter?

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Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke recently announced about two dozen endorsements. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker claims more Iowa endorsements than any of his caucus rivals. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren trumpeted just her third endorsement — an Iowa legislator who backed someone else in 2016.

Yet she’s the only one of them polling in double digits of support.

So while there is research suggesting endorsements are critical to what scholars call the “invisible primary” — the race to get the support of party leaders — University of Northern Iowa political scientist Chris Larimer says he’s among those who doubt endorsements foreshadow the outcome of the Iowa caucuses.

“Endorsements are tricky,” he said. Before 2016 when Donald Trump won the GOP nomination for president, “endorsements were a good predictor of who would be the nominee.”

Cory Booker stop in Mason City 02-08-2019

Sen. Cory Booker records a message for an audience member's wife, who'd asked her husband to say hello to the senator for her at a presidential campaign event in Mason City on Feb. 8, 2019. Booker has more Iowa endorsements than any of his rivals for president.

However, the impact of an endorsement on an individual voter is hard to establish, he said.

“Did an endorsement really cause a voter to change his or her mind and support a particular candidate?” he asked.

Likewise, Dave Nagle, a Waterloo lawyer who previously served in Congress and as chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, called endorsements “helpful, but hardly determinative.”

In 2004, Nagle joined then-U. S. Sen. Tom Harkin, former Vice President Al Gore, retired Iowa U.S. Rep. Berkley Bedell and other prominent Iowans in endorsing Howard Dean for president, “but none of us could save him.”

Then-Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won the caucuses that year, and it was Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack’s endorsement that is credited with helping him surge past Dean in the final days of the campaign. He went on to win in New Hampshire and secure the nomination with relative ease.

“Most of us who have been involved in politics for a while still hold on to the thought that our political heroes endorsing someone means something,” said Laura Hubka, the Howard County Democratic chairwoman and a member of the State Central Committee. “However, most of the people I talk to don’t seem to really care. That doesn’t stop every campaign from trying to check off every elected official from dogcatcher to county chair and up. I’m quite sure it’s in every organizer’s handbook.”


Dave Loebsack, the Democratic incumbent candidate in Iowa's 2nd Congressional District, speaks at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair in 2018. Loebsack didn’t have many people endorsing him when he challenged longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Leach in 2006 because “nobody thought I had a shot in hell of winning,” the Democrat said.

Even if they agree with Hubka, Nagle said people sometimes endorse because “it’s very flattering to have (a candidate) on the phone or at your kitchen table telling you your support is critical.”

An endorsement also gets the endorser’s name in the news “suggesting that person or entity is a player who should get some attention as well,” added University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle.

The value and impact of endorsements seems to depend on a variety of factors including the nature of the race, whether it’s a primary or general election and who is doing the endorsing. There’s a consensus that some “big name” endorsements from party leaders and celebrities can move the needle in a campaign.

“I would say that having Sen. Harkin’s or Secretary (Tom) Vilsack’s endorsement is going to carry a little more weight,” said Linn County Democratic Party Chairman Bret Nilles.

Second District U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack didn’t have many people endorsing him when he challenged longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Leach in 2006 because “nobody thought I had a shot in hell of winning,” the Democrat said. So getting Harkin’s endorsement “probably was the most important support that I had at that time.”

John Kerry

Presidential hopeful John Kerry tries his luck bowling during a stop at Mason City's Rose Bowl while campaigning for president in 2003. Kerry won the Iowa caucuses in 2004, due in part to then-Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack's endorsement.

Still, Nagle said, those endorsements “have a short life expectancy because people want to know what’s next.”

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It’s not just the quality of the endorsement, but the quantity, Nilles said.

“I don’t know of many people basing their choices strictly on a single endorsement, but if you could get a majority of county chairs to commit, it might have some impact,” he said.

What is most likely happening, Larimer said, is that voters use endorsements to build a narrative in their mind about “a particular candidate they already like without necessarily knowing the details.”

Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford is skeptical of the value of endorsements in the caucuses because the people who participate tend of be high-information voters who have seen, heard and read about the candidates.

“The more one knows about politics — characteristic of activists in particular, especially those who turn out for caucuses — the less weight an endorsement would seem to carry,” Goldford said. For example, “if I know nothing about restaurant X, I might well take your opinion of it into account insofar as you have eaten there yourself. But if I have my own experience of the restaurant, your opinion will weigh much less in my decision whether to dine there a second time.”

In primary races, Hagle said, endorsements from party leaders may be used to clear the field. He thinks that may have been the intent of Loebsack’s early endorsement of former state Sen. Rita Hart to succeed him when he retires.

It doesn’t always work. Hagle points to the Alabama UI.S. Senate race where Roy Moore won the nomination despite Luther Strange getting the backing of many state and national party leaders. It was a case of endorsements backfiring because they were from the “wrong” people — in that case, the party establishment, he said.

The worth of some endorsements can be measured by what comes with them, Hagle said.

If a union endorses, but its members don’t get involved in the campaign, it has less value than if the union can get members to make phone calls, knock on doors and talk up the candidate.

Another factor can be an endorsement from a group representing an important issue that tends to have a lot of single-issue supporters, such as abortion rights or Planned Parenthood, Hagle said.

Endorsements that come with campaign cash or advertising support may have more impact than others, he said.

The worth of endorsements from an officeholder depends on whether that person actually works on behalf of the candidate and motivates his or her supporters to do so also, Hagle said. Lower-level endorsements, such as from state legislators, might be useful if that person or party official actually works on behalf of that candidate in one way or another.

But in many cases, Nagle said, “they’ll stand of the stage with you, but they rarely make the phone calls.”

The value also depends on how well liked the elected officials is.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has more than a dozen endorsements, but he’s also using “anti-endorsements” to bolster his credibility.

Quoting Franklin Roosevelt — “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made” — his campaign released a list of corporate executives, billionaires “and some of the most powerful people in America, all of whom are determined to defeat Sen. Bernie Sanders and defend a rigged political and economic system that benefits the wealthy at the expense of working families.”

While a high-profile endorsement may sway some voters, an expected endorsement that doesn’t materialize also can have an impact.

“We are sort of seeing this with talk of (former President Barack) Obama not endorsing (former Vice President Joe) Biden and seemingly staying out of the primary contest,” Hagle said.

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