Candidates play up endorsements, but do they really matter?

Jeremy Duda//October 31, 2014

Candidates play up endorsements, but do they really matter?

Jeremy Duda//October 31, 2014

An ad touts Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's endorsement of Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Ducey.
An ad touts Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s endorsement of Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Ducey.

From presidents and senators to businessmen and celebrities to mayors and city council members in rural communities, candidates for office can’t get enough endorsements and are all too happy to tout that support on the campaign trail.

In the week before Arizona’s Nov. 4 election, Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Ducey announced a string of endorsements from low-profile politicos such as Yuma’s mayor and one of the city’s council members, as well as a more eye-catching endorsement from Democratic Sen. Carlyle Begay. His Democratic opponent, Fred DuVal, made a minor splash with an endorsement and robocall from actress and activist Eva Longoria.

But political operatives say very few endorsements actually influence voters. While the most towering figures of Arizona politics, such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and U.S. Sen. John McCain, might move the needle a bit, most have little, if any impact on the race. And what few notable results candidates see from endorsements are mostly limited to primary elections, operatives say.

“They’re just like yard signs. They only matter if you don’t have any,” Democratic lobbyist Barry Dill said of endorsements.

Few political observers say endorsements can have much of a measurable impact on a race. Republican campaign consultant Nathan Sproul pointed to McCain’s endorsement of Len Munsil in the 2006 Republican primary, when Munsil was unknown and running against a candidate with a famous last name (Don Goldwater). Another example was Arpaio’s 2002 support of Janet Napolitano in the governor’s race, which the Democratic candidate won by less than 12,000 votes.

“You’re trying to demonstrate to the voter that someone they trust trusts you. So it’s like credibility by proxy, almost,” Sproul said of the first category. “I think there’s very few endorsements that fall into that category. That really is the John McCain, Jon Kyls of the world, Joe Arpaio. Even during this last primary, I’m not really sure, as popular as Jan Brewer is, that her endorsement carried that much weight in some of these races.”

Even if most endorsements don’t carry much weight or have much of an impact, collecting them is often a matter of force of habit for candidates, said GOP political consultant Chris Baker.

“Candidates and campaigns do it because they’ve always done it. In some ways, the average voter doesn’t really pay much attention to endorsements,” Baker said.

Useful, if not persuasive

Just because an endorsement won’t really persuade people to vote for a candidate doesn’t mean they aren’t useful, though.

Sproul said endorsements usually fall into one of three categories – well-known and popular figures aimed at convincing voters to support them; people who can help the candidates reinforce themes and narratives they’re trying to promote; and those that are primarily meant to curry favor with the endorser, not get a benefit for the endorsee.

Sometimes a candidate benefits from currying favor with someone by making a big deal out of their endorsement, Sproul said. And in those cases, the endorser can still do a lot. For example, if a candidate announces a collection of grassroots endorsements from legislative district chairs, those people can help drum up other supporters.

“If that person can get 10 people out to your phone banks, it can make a big impact,” Sproul said.

If an organization such as the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry or the United Food and Commercial Workers endorses a candidate, the biggest benefit is from what those organizations will do for you, not who will vote for you because of it, said Chuck Coughlin, a lobbyist and GOP political consultant. Some people or organizations fundraise for the candidates they endorse, while others will put boots on the ground and canvassers at voters’ doors.

Follow the money

Most politicos say that whatever impact endorsements have usually comes in the primary election, since Democrats and Republicans will mostly just rally around their party’s nominee. In a contested primary, those endorsements can help build momentum and fundraising among the chattering class, especially early in the race, when candidates are trying to establish themselves and few voters are paying attention to a far-off election.

Perhaps the biggest benefit is in terms of early fundraising. Lobbyist and Democratic consultant Mario Diaz cited the old maxim of “follow the money.”

“In the primary, I believe in the primary election endorsements do matter. It brings a sense of credibility and stability to the candidate,” Diaz said. “You have a finite number of contributors to any political candidate. And when those contributors see an endorsement come to a candidate, the money will follow, in my opinion.”

Coughlin said that early momentum benefited Ducey.  And that momentum was apparent after former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith jumped into the primary months later.

“Doug did a really good job early on and got a substantial lead over Scott by collecting a whole raft of endorsements from the business community and established himself as the business community candidate, which gave him access to fundraising lists and gave him the appearance of a frontrunner before Scott even got in the race,” said Coughlin, whose firm worked on Smith’s campaign.

Endorsements also matter more in some races than in others, especially in low-profile races, said Republican consultant Chad Willems.

“If you’ve got somebody who’s running for the first time for office for state Legislature that voters don’t know, but you get some high-profile endorsements, you add credibility. People give you a second look,” he said. “I think the higher up the food chain you go … I think people are more looking at what that candidate stands for, what that candidate’s vision is for the state.”

The impact of crossover endorsements

In general elections, the only endorsements that usually have an impact, consultants say, are from across the aisle, when a candidate is trying to get crossover votes. Shortly after the primary, DuVal took out a full-page ad in The Arizona Republic  announcing his “GOP for Fred” coalition, a list of dozens of names that included several prominent former Republican officials.

“That’s a direct appeal to more moderate members of the Republican Party who may feel that Doug Ducey is too conservative for them,” Willems said.

Even if voters are unfamiliar with the actual endorsers, knowing that a candidate has support from members of the opposite party can be persuasive, consultants say.

Several candidates have sought crossover appeal using that tactic, as well. Ducey used his opening statements in a Sept. 29 debate to announce his endorsement from Democratic Rep. Catherine Miranda. David Garcia, the Democratic nominee for superintendent of public instruction, touts the endorsements of two Republicans who previously held the job. And Democrat Felecia Rotellini bolstered her case for GOP votes with lists of Republican endorsements in her 2010 and 2014 campaigns for attorney general, which was headlined this year by businessman and sports mogul Jerry Colangelo.

Not every candidate puts a premium on endorsements. In the six-way GOP primary for governor, former GoDaddy executive Christine Jones took the opposite track. She only announced one prominent endorsement during her campaign, that of Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, and used her lack of endorsements to bolster the outsider image she presented, though she openly courted Arpaio for months before he backed Ducey.

Despite spending more than $5 million of her own money, Jones finished a distant third in the primary. But Baker said her lackluster performance was due to other factors, not her lack of endorsements.

“Did she lose the race because of a lack of endorsements? Not at all,” he said.