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Saturday, Sep 20, 2014
Politics

Do endorsements still matter?


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When state Sen. Joe Negron received a newspaper endorsement in his re-election bid, the Stuart Republican’s campaign sent an email.

When Democratic candidate Sean Shaw, running for a Tampa state House seat, was given the Service Employees International Union’s seal of approval, he tweeted it.

And when Florida Right to Life endorsed state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, the Fort Myers Republican thanked the organization on her Facebook page.

Most politicians hunger for endorsements and are eager to announce when they get them. But do they really move the needle when it comes to swaying voters?

The consensus among political scientists: The more attention a race gets, the more minds are made up and the less important endorsements are.

Research suggests that goes for issues as well as candidates.

Voters likely know where they stand on medical marijuana, but not so much on the details of judicial appointments. Both are proposed constitutional amendments on the November ballot.

“For real high-profile races, where there’s a lot of media, (endorsements) don’t actually sway very many people,” said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor. “The average person, flooded with information, already has a pretty good feel of who they’re going to vote for.

“On the other hand, where you have low information about a race, endorsements can make a difference where candidates are traveling below the radar,” he added.

People still pay attention to newspaper endorsements, according to a pair of Brown University researchers, but even here voters sift through editorial imprimaturs.

In 2008, Brian Knight and Chun-Fang Chiang found that endorsements “for the Democratic candidate from left-leaning newspapers are less influential than are endorsements from neutral or right-leaning newspapers, and likewise for endorsements for the Republican.”

In other words, voters “do rely on the media for information during campaigns, but the extent of this reliance depends upon the degree and direction of any bias,” they said.

Others don’t screen for spin, however. Indeed, media and politics scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson said voters have divined a candidate’s ideology from endorsements.

For instance, when the New York Times endorsed John McCain for the 2012 Republican primaries, “voters aware of the endorsement thought of him as more moderate than did voters unaware of the endorsement,” she said.

Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, also said the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s endorsement of then-Sen. Barack Obama for president increased voter perceptions that Obama was a liberal.

Newspaper endorsements’ influence may have declined, says Tampa Tribune opinion editor Joe Guidry, but candidates still seek them and readers still ask when they’ll be published.

“The newspaper, after all, is an institution with deep community roots, and we do get the opportunity to interview the candidates and review their backgrounds,” he said. “We try to explain the rationale for our choices, so readers can decide if they agree. The endorsements simply offer another resource for voters to consider.”

Beyond editorials’ influence, the endorsement interviews themselves are valuable for the editorial board, Guidry added.

“We meet many people who care deeply about the community and have different ideas about how to improve it,” he said. “You get a better sense of local concerns.”

Moreover, endorsements make for news, which is gold to candidates seeking traction.

“In a mass culture, attention is a precious commodity,” said Paul Croce, professor of history and American studies at Stetson University. “… For most potential voters, the degree of caring is low, especially for state and local races.”

In off-year elections, many people don’t vote “and will not even know about the election or care about it,” he said. “Enter endorsements as a way to ramp up the interest, first by just directing attention to particular candidates.”

If endorsements mean anything, it’s likely in primaries, according to Stephen Craig, professor and director of the political campaigning program at the University of Florida. That’s when the most voters are still undecided.

But whose endorsement really counts?

Conservative hero “Sarah Palin — or anyone else — saying she’s for someone is fine, but that endorsement is really going to carry some weight if it is accompanied by money and grassroots support,” Craig said. “The endorsement alone probably doesn’t matter all that much.”

The same logic applies to interest group endorsements, such as the thumbs up House candidate Shaw got from the service workers’ union.

“Who cared if organized labor liked a particular Democrat?” Craig said. “What mattered was what they brought to the table along with the endorsement.”

Bottom line: Such endorsements don’t make a difference “unless money and manpower follow,” he said.

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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