It’s the start of another Presidential campaign season. Granted it comes earlier every cycle -like Halloween decorations popping up in stores in August - but the rituals are the same. First come the announcements, then the committee formations and soon thereafter my favorite, the endorsements. Endorsements fall into several easily recognized categories.
There are of course the geographic endorsements either from the home state or a key primary state. For a few shining moments committeemen from Iowa get noticed and New Hampshire state representatives carry weight. There are also the ideological endorsements. Battling against an opponent weak on the environment? Call Al Gore. Need a boost on national defense? Call Sam Nunn. But there are much more interesting and illuminating categories to examine.
The first is the “Invite Yourself Over to Dinner” endorsement. This is the endorsement that is really about the endorser trying to stay relevant rather than the endorsee. Best example: any endorsement by John Kerry (e.g. Jim Webb, Phil Angeledies) in the last two years. In this situation the hapless recipient’s goal is to get it over as soon as possible and hope the endorser’s fading popularity does not blemish his own race.
Second is the “You better remember this favor” endorsement. This was exemplified by Rick Santorum campaigning feverishly for the ideologically incompatible Arlen Specter in 2004 with an eye toward his own problematic re-election in 2006. The deal paid off for Specter but not Santorum. This of course explains the frenetic campaign schedule in 2006 kept up by John McCain and Rudy Giuliani as well as Hillary Clinton. The chits have piled up and they will soon be cashed in by the 2008 candidates. No doubt those with hopes of their own for 2010 will in turn make endorsements for the 2008 crop, hoping the favor is returned and continuing the never ending cycle of endorsements.
Third is the “Negative endorsement.” When James Dobson declared John McCain “unacceptable” the meter no doubt ticked up, not down, among independents and middle of the road Republicans not enamored of being told who is and who is not acceptable by self-appointed religious powerbrokers. When pro-choice groups in socially conservative Virginia in 2005 refused to endorse Tim Kaine he no doubt was greatly relieved.
Finally, there is the “Thanks but no thanks” endorsement. Denny Hastert, surely thinking he was being helpful, endorsed Mitt Romney this week. Unless there is an unserved constituency for wrestling coaches or civil libertarians who believe cold cash in the freezer does not justify execution of a warrant on Congressional offices, this endorsement would be of no use. Moreover, the departing Congressional leadership would hardly be the model Romney would want to project for his administration. This endorsement like an ugly Christmas sweater is better left in the drawer.
So other than for entertainment value do endorsements matter anymore? Certainly front runners who pile them up think they help create a picture of inevitability. If everyone who is anyone in the party thought Bush was the guy in 2000 who were primary voters to argue? For long shots prominent endorsements probably add a measure of credibility. In the end however the average primary voter, a well informed and opinionated subset of the voting population, is unlikely to be swayed by an Iowa state senator’s vote of approval or even Al Gore’s. As to the latter, ask Howard Dean.