Do endorsements really matter?

Endorsements in the Presidential Primaries

or How the Kennedys are their own primary

These days you can’t throw a harpoon without hitting a story about how someone is endorsing one or the other of the presidential candidates. Everyone seems to be getting in on this deal. Starting way back when people were guffawing about how good old Chuck Norris endorsed Mike Huckabee, and witnessed a barrage of endorsements from every direction. Stallone endorsed the Huckster’s rival, John McCain. Hulk Hogan has recently chimed in support of Obama too. Before you knew it, everyone wanted to get in on this: from Oprah stumping for Barack Obama, to all kinds of ridiculous celebrities chiming in. I can’t see how it’d make that much of a difference, because I don’t think many people want to take their political advice from someone who kicks people in the face for a living. But then again, I could be wrong, since Norris seems to have given Huckabee the bump to win in Iowa.

Still, how much can an endorsement really matter, if it’s not from a political celebrity? Oprah does have the reach, with her millions-of-suburban-women audience, which could really help Obama. Clinton was polling strongly among women, so anything that takes some of that away can’t hurt. But then again, what about backlash? The fact that the woman-powered Oprah didn’t endorse the first female presidential candidate has definitely upset some people, and may result in some serious determination among the Clintonites.

This isn’t to say that celebrities don’t have a storied history in politics. Regan was a film star, after all. And he’s had more press during this election than half the other candidates (despite the fact that he’s not running, or alive.) I mean, let’s face it. Besides the occasional joke about Kucinich, and the internet’s fixation with Ron Paul, if you weren’t one of the top 4 Republican candidates, or Top 3 democrats, you pretty much didn’t count. People were invoking Regan’s name left and right (pun intended). And let’s not forget good old Arnold in California. Another film star-turned-politician who has enjoyed enormous popularity.

But if you aren’t one of these people, why would your endorsement matter? If you remember from the 2004 election, Bruce Springsteen wasn’t enough to save John Kerry‘s campaign. So why all the fuss?

Okay, so for a second let’s ignore the movie and music celebs. What about respected authors and nobel laureates? Will they swing the vote? We can ask the Democrats. Toni Morrison, a nobel prize winner, has come out and endorsed Obama. Maya Angelou, on the other hand, went ahead and endorsed Hillary Clinton. You would think that this has to have some effect on some segment of American society. But the effect has yet to be felt. The Salon article linked above provides a pretty interest take on the situation.

The two writers do match their chosen candidates, then. Angelou, with a well-known and colorful life story featuring odds overcome and the triumph of the human spirit, has been embraced as an icon of middlebrow empowerment. With her, you know exactly what you’re getting because you’ve gotten it so many times before, and yet you can congratulate yourself for (mildly) bucking the system. Electing Clinton would make history, but it also promises to bring a familiar presence back to the White House.

Like Obama, with his Harvard degree and pristine, international sleekness, [Morrison] seems too good and too smart for us, the sort of American appreciated by foreigners with obscurely discriminating standards. The electorate famously prefers guys they can imagine dropping by for a barbecue over intimidating intellectuals, but that insecurity has been biting us in the ass for the past eight years.

Step right up and claim your Kennedy. We’ve got plenty to go around.

I think the best part of the election so far has to be the Kennedys. In terms of the Democratic Party, they’re pretty much the royal family. It’s hard to find a family with more clout with the party and it’s members. Maybe it’s because so many of them are so involved in politics, but their endorsements may really have the chance to swing the Democratic primary for Obama or Clinton.

It seems like they have divided pretty evenly into two camps. But the way it has broken down is fascinating, full of seemingly innocent moves and hidden motivations. On the one side, in the Obama camp, we have Sen. Ted Kennedy, currently the second longest serving US Senator, his son Patrick (A US Congressman), and his niece Caroline. If her name doesn’t sound familiar, don’t worry. While she is accomplished in her own right, the fact that she is the daughter of President JFK may carry more weight. Especially because Obama’s camp loves to compare him to JFK. This really can’t hurt his campaign, despite the controversy that has dogged Teddy Kennedy in the past.

Not to be outdone, the rest of the Kennedy clan has sprung into action. Three of RFK’s kids have come out to back Clinton. They seem to focus on the very things their father ran against, the idea of trusting the establishment versus trusting an untested idealist. And they use very un-Kennedyesque language:

The loftiest poetry will not solve these issues. We need a president willing to engage in a fistfight to safeguard and restore our national virtues.

So what could force a dynasty like the Kennedy’s to split so evenly? On one side we have the daughter of a former President, and on the other we have the children of a Former-almost-President. Well there are some pretty pessimistic theories floating around. Instead of the regular talk of people being motivated by the need to participate in public discourse, we have accusations of selfish motives. People say that Teddy endorsed Obama because Clinton had given LBJ credit for fathering the civil rights movement, instead of crediting JFK . Apparently, this is also a reaction for the negative tone the primary took in South Carolina. Political rockstar Bill Clinton, whose obligatory endorsement for his wife has given her a pretty big boost, may have done some harm by taking the offensive and going after Obama. So Kennedy pushed back, and punished the Clinton’s by endorsing their rival.

And RFK’s kids? Surely they can’t be politically motivated! But yet, people are aiming to dismiss his support for Clinton as purely a political move. If she wins and becomes President, she’d have to resign her seat as a Senator. And who’s nicely placed to take over a seat that was once occupied by his father? RFK Jr. Personally, I think that sounds a bit far fetched, but in this day and age it’s quite hard to tell.

Oh but the story does not stop here. Even the Republicans aren’t safe from the Kennedy touch. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is extremely influential in California, happens to be married to a Kennedy-member, Maria Shriver. And his recent choice to endorse John McCain could be the last little bit necessary to get McCain to triumph over Romney. If McCain wins California, which is likely with the Governator on board, that is a huge step on the way to the presidential race.

And Edwards? Or Giuliani?

The former competition plays a really unique role in this election as well. On both sides, the race is pretty close. We have a Romney-McCain showdown, and an Obama-Clinton duel. So, the third/fourth/fifth/nth candidates who drop out of the race, their support may just make the difference. I’d say even more so on the Democrat side. Edwards has polled pretty well, and his stance as a defender of the poor and of labour may resound with the Democrats. So whoever way he chooses may well secure the nomination. It’s a tricky thing, because Edwards is a really strong candidate for a running mate, and he probably doesn’t want to risk alienating either of his potential tickets to the White House. Obama clearly wants the endorsement, and hasn’t really been shy about saying so.

Giuliani’s endorsement of McCain may not really have that big of an influence, but even if it helps McCain secure the delegates from New York, it can’t hurt.  Still, his poor showings so far seem to suggest he may not be that much of a help, after all.

So do endorsements matter?

The answer, in short, is yes.  Endorsements matter a heck of a lot in the 2008 Presidential Election.  I don’t really think people care what Hulk Hogan has to say, and thankfully everyone has ignored Roseanne Barr’s foray into politics, but we shouldn’t discount everyone else just yet.  The Kennedy primary should be closely watched, because it’s as likely as not that the Democrats may have to spend more time campaigning there then they would in some of the smaller states.

And keep your eye on Edwards.  Out of anyone here, I think he holds the fate of the election in his hands (or rather, in his delegates).

-A

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