Do endorsements matter?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Three months from now, you will wake up to news that Sarah Palin endorsed Rick Perry for president (or possibly that Rick Perry endorsed Sarah Palin for president) and you will be told this is huge news. You will then turn on a cable channel and find someone (possibly me) arguing that this is, in fact, a significant coup. But it probably won’t be. That’s because endorsements usually don’t matter. At least, not any more.

Once upon a time, voters were loyal to political parties and bosses; their endorsements meant a great deal. It was a simpler time. But those days have passed. Today, political graveyards are littered with the corpses of politicians who had more endorsements than their opponents. “The endorsement mattered more when mass communication was weaker,” explains GOP strategist Dan Hazelwood, “because it was the only brand identifier people heard.”

This is true. Mostly. On rare occasions, endorsements still matter. And interestingly, the most significant modern endorsement I can think of (in terms of how much it helped the endorsee) had nothing to do with politics. It wasn’t Joe Lieberman supporting John McCain — or even Oprah Winfrey backing Barack Obama (he would have won, anyway) — but rather, R&B singer/songwriter Usher’s “endorsement” of teen pop star Justin Bieber.

After famously running into each other in a parking lot, Usher took the young Canadian moptop under his wing, helping him land a record deal. This was important, but perhaps not as important as the overall symbolism of the association. Usher’s public support provided the young star with something perhaps even more important: street cred. (This is something most teen heart-throbs desperately lack — especially as they attempt to transition from teen star to adult star.)

As Hazelwood tells me, modern endorsements only matter if they are “unusual — like cross party or [if] an establishment leader endorsed an anti-establishment candidate.” This is why the Lieberman cross party endorsement of a Republican just eight short years after having been the Democratic vice presidential nominee, mattered. This is why Oprah’s unusual (because of her star power) endorsement of Obama was significant. And this is why Usher’s support of of a white kid singing pop music mattered.

But those are the exceptions. Most endorsements don’t matter. Keep this in mind the next time a Haley Barbour or a Mitch Daniels — or whoever — endorses Mitt Romney or a Tim Pawlenty — and the 24-hour media (predictably but mistakenly) makes this out to be a huge deal.

Matt K. Lewis