Friday, October 30, 2015

Do Politician-To-Politician Endorsements Mean Anything?


Yesterday we ran a post about how usually-progressive Sherrod Brown endorsed Hillary instead of Bernie as well as other conservative shitheads (Patrick Murphy and Ted Strickland for example). And by now you've probably read how progressive poseur Bill de Blasio finished the serpentine negotiations that finally, this morning, led to a Hillary endorsement as well (on, of all places, anti-Hillary headquarters, MSNBC's Morning Joe).

At the same time 5 other senators-- Tim Kaine (D-VA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Chris Murphy (D-CT)-- two of whom, like Brown, have progressive records-- Schatz and Whitehouse endorsed Patrick Murphy for the open Rubio seat in Florida. None of these guys served with Murphy in the House and I doubt any of them did any due diligence at all or know anything about him-- "ex"-Republican, New Dem, 100% Wall Street-pawn, atrocious anti-working family voting record, anti-environment, etc.-- other than the line of malarkey Schumer and Tester fed them. Disappointing, especially from the most progressive of the lot, Brian Schatz who just got finished with a bitter primary with one of Murphy's New Dem colleagues, the detestable Colleen Hanabusa, who is terrible, but not nearly as terrible as Murphy. In his endorsement statement, Schatz proclaimed that "In Congress, Patrick has demonstrated his commitment to the middle class by consistently advocating for Medicare and Social Security and fights for sound policies that will grow the middle class. Floridians are lucky to have a candidate for Senate as hardworking as Patrick, and I look forward to having another Murphy in the Senate in 2017."

I sent Schatz this video, a demonstration about Murphy advocating for Medicare and Social Security-- or at least for cutting back on them:

Structural changes to programs like Medicare and Social Security-- the same language Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell use, is Republic-Speak for gutting the two most popular government programs in history, something that rich Republicans-- like Murphy-- have always hated. Probably just as important to Schatz-- a committed climate change hawk (like Heinrich)-- would have been Murphy's persistent support for the Keystone XL Pipeline. He joined the Republicans to vote for it 7 times.

Bear with me while I repeat some smart advice I got from Pennsylvania Congressman Matt Cartwright about politician-to-politician endorsements. "What matters is your message, and making sure you have the means to get it out there. Those kinds of endorsements worked 40 or 50 or 100 years ago; I think we are at a point now where a candidate's collecting endorsements of other politicians at best is a waste of time, and at worst is actually counterproductive. It's definitely a waste of time, because nowadays in high-profile races information on candidates is so readily and directly available that voters don't depend on party bosses and ward-heelers to tell them who to vote for. It can even be counterproductive, because the politicians bestowing their endorsements may in fact be individually or collectively despised. In my own experience with a hotly contested primary contest, I was a complete political neophyte in my first election; my opponent was a 20-year incumbent congressman. You could count my endorsements from elected officials and local party committees on one hand; my opponent's list of endorsements was gargantuan. I just focused on raising enough money to get my message out. Since I was able to do that, I did get my message out. Since the voters liked my message more than the other guy's, nobody paid any attention to all those other politicians' endorsements, and I won... by a lot."

That said, the reason I even started writing about endorsements today-- before I knew about Schatz and the others backing Murphy-- was because of a new column by Seth Masket in Pacific Standard, What's in an endorsement?, that a friend in Sacramento sent me after he read my post about California Assembly Speaker-designate Anthony Rendon, an environmental champion, endorsing Isadore Hall, a corrupt and hackish pawn of Big Oil, over fellow environmental champion Nanette Barragán. What Masket is asking in his column is if an endorsement actually moves votes. He concludes that-- at least in California's dysfunctional jungle primary system-- it does.
There actually isn't a lot of agreement on just what endorsements do for a candidate. The most influential book on this topic, the Party Decides, notably doesn't make the argument that endorsements necessarily cause primary voters to vote a certain way. Rather, it treats endorsements as the most visible indicator of the way party insiders are leaning.

If party insiders-- defined broadly as officeholders, major donors, activists, interest groups, and others-- want a particular candidate to become its presidential nominee, there's a lot they can do to make that happen. They can provide money and expertise, defend the candidate when she is criticized, bend rules to provide ballot and debate access, etc. More importantly, they can spread the word among active primary voters and caucus goers that this is our candidate. This is why the insiders' choice tends to win. But a lot of this activity doesn't occur in the open and is very hard to measure. Endorsements provide a pretty clear image of which way the insiders are leaning, even if it misses some activity.

Yet there's evidence from other scholarship that endorsements by themselves actually do move votes. In some recent research I did with Thad Kousser, Eric McGhee, and Scott Lucas, we looked at recent statehouse and congressional elections in California under the state's new "top-two" primary system. The state parties have become very active in recent elections by issuing endorsements in primaries, as they are rightly worried about the prospects of losing control of their nominations. Those formal party endorsements are printed in the state ballot booklet that goes out to voters before the primary.

We found that the Democratic Party's endorsement actually moved votes in the primary election. The party's imprimatur seemed to provide a candidate with a boost of around 10 percentage points. The size of the boost varied importantly with context. As we found in an experiment, the Democratic endorsement worked better for traditional liberal Democratic candidates than it did for more moderate, business-oriented ones. So there are limits to what a voter will accept from an endorsement-- you can't necessarily convince a voter to support a candidate who is antithetical to her party's longstanding goals.

...In the real world, of course, endorsements rarely operate in isolation. The preponderance of party endorsements leaning one way tends to re-assure donors, who give more to that candidate. Good campaign consultants notice those signals, too, and provide their expertise to the candidate. You may never bother to find out which state legislative candidate has the bulk of party endorsements behind her. But if you see her name on hundreds of billboards during your drive to and from work, if you hear her name frequently on the radio, if you get mailers with her name on them talking about an issue you care about, chances are that will have some kind of effect on you, even if it's a pretty subtle or even unconscious one. And endorsements could have made that all happen.
And speaking of transactional hacks, there are many observers of Florida politics who are certain ethically-challenged Congressman Alcee Hastings sold his endorsement to Patrick Murphy's parents, as many people do. The third candidate in the race, Pam Keith, has publicly accused Alcee of doing just that. The Sunshine State News published this letter Hastings sent Keith early this month:

click on the letter for some mildly interesting reading

Yesterday Schumer was able to orchestrate 5 uninformed senators to all endorse his Wall Street lackey candidate at the same time. There are probably as many people in Florida-- perhaps more-- who resent Schumer's interference as who are swayed by it. As for donors being swayed... Grayson, like Bernie Sanders, gets most of his campaign funding from small donors who agree with his politics. Murphy, like Schumer, gets almost all of his campaign funds from wealthy special interests who are investing in a corrupt, transactional conservative. If you'd like to help the corrupt, transactional conservative out of the Senate, please consider contributing to Grayson here.

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