Not All Endorsements Are Created Equal

Slate's Dave Weigel takes The Washington Post to task for running an inane article listing the "big six 2012 endorsements." As a general rule, I'm opposed to these types of lists, which are typically desperate exercises reporters turn to when they have a deadline staring them down and no new ideas. But while he's right to criticize the lazy idea, Weigel takes it a little too far when he uses Chris Christie's support for Mitt Romney as evidence that endorsements play no role:

That endorsement mattered. Romney went from the mid-twenties in national polls to... the mid-twenties in national polls. In Iowa, he went from the low twenties to the low twenties. In New Hampshire, he went from a twenty-point lead to a twenty-point lead. All the stuff about money and insider loyalty is true, but the Christie endorsement has done nothing yet to rally the sort of voters who wanted Christie to run.

Sure, Christie's endorsement of Romney didn't sway the polls, but that's a poor example to expand upon. Endorsements mean little for the front-runner who is expected to lock up support from the party elite and matter even less when the endorsee comes from a member of the same ideological wing, as was the case with Christie and Romney. If, on the other hand, Sarah Palin threw her support behind Romney, and the two launched a bus tour across Iowa, it could, in fact, help Romney shore up support from the social conservative base that has remained cool to his campaign.

Where endorsements really come into play, though, is for the second-tier candidates hoping to push themselves into the same plane with the front-runners. Support from the Democratic politicians made little difference to Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, but Ted Kennedy's decision to support Barack Obama added the establishment legitimacy that his campaign needed to continue gaining steam after the contest expanded from the first few nominating states to a national campaign. It's not hard to imagine a scenario this year where Palin, Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio lend their support to one of the current minor candidates, Rick Santorum perhaps. That would certainly help raise his profile before Iowans vote in six weeks.

Research from political science also indicates that endorsements play a key—perhaps deciding—role in presidential campaigns. According to the academics, it's less about the individual endorsements shifting the polls than the full body of supporters, which dictates the results. As John Sides describes it:

Recent work by political scientists emphasizes the importance of the “invisible primary”—the campaigning that occurs before the Iowa caucus. A key aspect of the invisible primary is the campaign for endorsements from party leaders. In fact, the number of endorsements candidates receive is strongly associated with the number of delegates they eventually win even after accounting for the amount of money they raise and the amount of news coverage they receive.

Who the governor of New Jersey endorses might not change the nomination, but who New Jersey's state senators, house members, local officials back as a group is certainly consequential.