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When and how do endorsements matter?

Posted: December 5, 2011 - 1:00am

By certifying Speaker Newt Gingrich as a kindred conservative spirit and hinting that Gov. Mitt Romney is instead a shape changer, the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader’s weekend proclamation invites the question, “When and how do endorsements matter?”

Evidence from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s National Annenberg Election Surveys of years past suggests that, when wielded by a credible source, these imprimaturs are able to signal the ideology of the favored candidate and scar the candidacies they spurn.

The telegraphic power of an endorsement was on display in the 2000 primaries when National Right to Life’s support for Gov. George W. Bush provided pro-choice voters in South Carolina and Michigan with a clue, albeit an inaccurate one, that his chief rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, was a champion of Roe v. Wade. Accordingly, even though the two contenders’ positions on the issue were indistinguishable, voters who wanted abortion to be legal swung to McCain while those who thought it should be illegal rallied to Bush.

We saw similar ideological cueing at work eight years later, when knowing that the New York Times had argued that McCain should be Republican nominee moderated perceptions of his ideological dispositions. By blessing the Arizonan, the Times may have diminished his prospects with conservatives even as it helped with moderates. On the other side of the aisle, awareness that the liberal antiwar advocacy group MoveOn.org had endorsed Barack Obama carried with it the assumption that he was indeed a liberal. In both cases, these findings survive controls for factors such as ideology, gender, education and media consumption. In each case, media accounts and advertising fueled the push-pull effect.

Of course by selecting one candidate, endorsers implicitly reject the others, with some renunciations more charitable than others. In the early 2000 primaries Rush Limbaugh played the role of repudiator-in-chief by successfully casting McCain as a moderate Rockefeller Republican trying to pry the party out of the hands of Christian conservatives. In 2008, the talk radio host resurrected the attack with comparable effect: a drop in McCain’s favorability among Limbaugh listeners and an increased perception that the senator was a moderate and not a true conservative.

A similar result was produced in October 2008 when Gen. Colin Powell’s more circumspect indictment of Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s preparedness damaged both her favorability ratings and perceptions of her readiness for the Oval Office.

Because those casting a ballot in the primary season cannot rely on a candidate’s party identification to clarify ideological bent, the telegraphic function of endorsements is more powerful in the nominating than the general election process. In both primaries and the general election, however, the credibility of the endorser matters.

As a result, forecasting the effects, if any, of the Union Leader’s benediction and malediction requires knowing: whether the voter knows the newspaper’s ideological identity and respects its views; how widely and persistently media and ads spread word of the endorsement; and whether New Hampshire voters are uncertain about whether Romney or Gingrich is the more reliable conservative.

• Jamieson is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Hardy is an assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication of Louisiana State University. With Kate Kenski they are co-authors of “The Obama Victory: How Media, Money and Message Shaped the 2008 Election,” which won the American Publishers Association’s Prose Award in Government and Politics.

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