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Obama Gets The Top-Tier Endorsements, But Do They Matter?

By January 13, 2008

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Since the New Hampshire primary five days ago, in which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton each won 8 convention delegates, Sen. Obama has scored a slew of top-notch endorsements.

Neither Sen. Clinton nor Sen. Edwards have collected new, top-tier endorsements since the New Hampshire contest.

But do endorsements matter in a presidential race? The answer is this: YES. And NO.

Oprah Endorses Sen. Obama
Sen. Obama's first major endorsement came in December 2007 from Oprah Winfrey, who has the highest-rated talk show in U.S. TV history, and by all accounts, is the wealthiest African-American of the 20th century.

In early December, Oprah joined Barack and Michelle Obama at four campaign appearances, including two in primary battleground state South Carolina, where 50% of Democratic voters are African-American.

Celebrity endorsements have historically had little impact on elections, but the Oprah brand is something beyond mere celebrity: she's considered by many to be the most influential woman in the world. In fact, Time magazine named Oprah as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. (See Profile of Oprah Winfrey, Activist & Philanthropist.)

But will the Oprah endorsement cause voters... women, in particular... to vote for Sen. Obama? Maybe. But the most valuable aspect was Oprah's ability to draw an estimated 60,000 people to stadiums to hear Obama present his campaign message.

The test of the importance of Oprah Winfrey's support for Barack Obama will come on the South Carolina Democratic primary, set for January 26, 2008. My guess is that Oprah's endorsement will make a difference for Sen. Obama, but will be only one of many vital factors.

Culinary Workers Union of Las Vegas Endorsement of Obama
On January 9, 2008, one day after the New Hampshire primary, the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, in Las Vegas, widely regarded as the most influential and organized union in Nevada, endorsed Barack Obama for the Democratic caucus vote, set for January 19, 2008.

Both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards had also actively courted the union's valued stamp-of-approval. Their Nevada campaigns suffered serious setbacks when Sen. Obama instead received the endorsement.

Culinary Workers Local 226 boasts membership of 60,000 restaurant and food casino workers who could well decide the outcome of Nevada's caucus. Explains Politico.com:

"... the endorsement is expected to give Obama at least 10,000 supporters in the caucus, in a contest whose turnout estimates have ranged from 28,000 to 100,000.

"In a caucus, supporters of a candidate literally stand together on one side of the room, demonstrating to everyone who is supporting whom. Many Strip shift workers, Culinary Workers, will be voting at so-called 'at-large' caucus sites on the Strip.

"This means Culinary members, for whom unity is a creed, will be able to enforce discipline. Clinton can no longer expect to win many delegates at those at-large sites. "

But will the Culinary Workers Union endorsement guarantee a Nevada caucus win for Sen. Obama? Not necessarily, although it does make Obama the likeliest winner in a highly unpredictable contest.

Culinary Workers Union Local 26 is composed of 58% women, the largest demographic group nationally supporting Sen. Clinton for the presidency. Also, Latinos comprise 45% of Union membership. Hillary Clinton holds strong appeal for Latino voters, as does Bill, who won Nevada twice in the presidential elections.

The Clinton camp is reportedly livid at not receiving the Union endorsement.

In what's been described as "in-your-face-politics" and "a kick in the shins" to the union, Sen. Clinton strolled through lower middle-class Latino neighborhoods in Nevada on Friday, personally urging union members to ignore the endorsement and cast their caucus votes for her. She went door-to-door, listening to family financial woes while oozing empathy and dispensing campaign promises in equal measure.

The latest development in the bitter Nevada contest is a lawsut filed on January 12, 2008 by the Clinton-leaning Nevada State Education Association to make it harder for members of Culinary Workers Union Local 26 to vote on caucus day, January 19, by disallowing caucus locations inside Las Vegas casinos.

Reports the New York Times in Teachers Sue to Block Hotel Workers’ Union Vote in Nevada Caucus :

"... The 13-page lawsuit in federal district court here comes two days after the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Nevada endorsed Senator Barack Obama, a blow to Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Obama addressed the Culinary Union at their hall earlier Friday."

In the nasty battle for Nevada, only time will tell if the much-coveted Culinary Workers Union Local 26 endorsement will win the day for Sen. Obama.

Sen. John Kerry and Rep. George Miller Endorse Obama
In what amounted to both personal endorsements and unofficial nods from top Democratic leadership in Congress, Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), close colleague and confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both endorsed Barack Obama in the Democratic nomination race.

In ages past, the immediate past presidential nominee was considered a party's unofficial leader, an elder statesman emblematic of the party establishment. Endorsement blessings from the party's last presidential nominee was tantamount to bestowing the next nomination.

Those days are gone, though, and except for energizing John Kerry's true believers and his Massachusetts constituency, Sen. Kerry's gracious endorsement is unlikely to directly cause Democrats to vote for Sen. Obama. As a respected four-term senator, however, Sen. Kerry's example has apparently inspired other senators to likewise take an unambiguous stand for Sen. Obama. (See below for more.)

Probably the most significant impact of the Kerry endorsement is as a stinging blow to John Edward's campaign. Kerry and Edwards were running mates in 2004, but their relationship is reportedly strained. The Los Angeles Times observed:

"John Kerry went to John Edwards' home state the other day to endorse someone else in the Democratic presidential race: Barack Obama.

"A major-league diss? Yes. A surprise? Hardly."

About George Miller's endorsement of Sen. Obama, a Time magazine political blog penned in Pelosi for Obama?:

" An interesting endorsement for Obama today. Pelosi's BFF George Miller, a fellow Californian who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, announced today he's endorsing Obama.

"Pelosi has so far stayed out of the race. But when her top advisor who also happens to be a famous champion of women politicians endorses Obama, does it send the signal: is there room in Washington for both a Speaker Pelosi and a President Hillary?"

While Miller's endorsement won't cause many voters outside his San Francisco Bay area district to cast their lots for Obama, it may serve as a nod to other House members as to House leadership's presidential choice.

Gov. Janet Napolitano Endorsement of Obama
Janet Napolitano, two-term governor of Arizona and the most powerful Democrat in that state, endorsed Sen. Obama. The governor's endorsement was announced just weeks before Arizona's primary on February 5, dubbed Super Tuesday since 22 states hold Democratic primaries/caucuses that day.

Gov. Napolitano is a former chairman of the National Governors Association, and was on John Kerry's shortlist to be his 2004 running mate. She was asked to address both the 2000 and 2004 Democratic Party Conventions.

Blogged an editorial writer for the Arizona Republic:
" There will be all sorts of speculation about why Gov. Janet Napolitano chose to endorse Barack Obama. What were the political calculations that went into it? I suspect there wasn't much to it.

"She didn't want to sit this one out. Obama and she hit it off when they met. They click intellectually. He courted her support. And she made a decision from the gut, from the heart rather than the careful political calculus she is known for."

I suspect that Gov. Napolitano's endorsement will be persuasive to Arizona voters and women, and reassuring to Democrats wary of broad brush liberalization of immigration laws. Gov. Napolitano is a fierce advocate for strong border security and for holding employers responsible for hiring undocument workers.

Since Kerry, Other Senators Endorse Obama
In the few days since Sen. Kerry and Rep. Miller publicly endorsed Barack Obama, other members of Congress have followed suit, including:

  • Sen. Ben Nelson, the respected two-term senator from Nebraska, considered the top conservative Democrat in the Senate
  • Sen. Tim Johnson, the popular, moderate two-term senator from South Dakota who is recovering from a stroke-like brain injury.
  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, the first-term senator from Missouri, the first female elected to the Senate from that state, which hold its primary on Super Tuesday

But Will These Endorsements Matter to Voters?
To substantially affect American voters, an endorsement must be from someone nationally viewed with respect and even affection. Oprah Winfrey, of course, is the ultimate example of someone whose formal endorsement could change the course of an election. Could. Not will.

Endorsements by politicians are often heeded by those leaders' cadre of devoted supporters, and possibly citizens in their home district or state. Beyond that, I'm not sure that stamps-of-approvals by political leaders matter much.

Americans deeply prize their electoral opportunity to voice their opinions. And American voters are an independent-minded lot who regard endorsements as little more than interesting information.

As Mort Zuckerman, editor of U.S. News & World Report not-so-subtly wrote after New Hampshire, "It's the voters, stupid!"

(Photo credits: #1 Scott Olson/Getty Images; #2 Richard Ellis/Getty Images; #3 courtesy of the Office of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano)

Related Reading
What's Next after Seniors, Older White Women Lift Clinton to N.H. Victory?
Profile of Janet Napolitano, Governor of Arizona
Profile and Politics of Oprah Winfrey, Activist & Philanthropist
2008 Presidential Primary Calendar

Las Vegas Review-Journal, Jan 10, 2007: LAS VEGAS STOP: Democratic hopeful goes door to door


January 13, 2008 at 9:30 pm
(1) John Ballard says:

Good observations. And you’re right to question whether endorsements can equal votes.

I’ve been thinking about your precient wondering (November) whether Obama was really a Progressive Democrat… breakfast with Hizonner Bloomberg, Republican talking points and all that. That seems to be part of a campaign strategy to attract voters not faithful to either party as well as wobbly Republicans. It seems to have worked in Iowa.

As the race gets more heated we see more dirt and exploitation of race and/or gender, depending on which side is doing the exploitation. It’s historic to be choosing between a woman and a black man, but it’s nearly too much of a good thing. A lot energy is going to infighting which might otherwise be saved for the main election. No matter which of the two finishes as winner, he or she is gonna have to win back the support taken by the other in the process. If much more mud is tossed, that will be a challenge.

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