Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

 

By Barry Rascovar

Nov. 6, 2017 – Once upon a time, campaign endorsements mattered. Some of those nods of approval even tilted elections. That’s no longer the case in Maryland.

The power of an endorsement is waning as the communications revolution provides multiple sources of information about candidates running for office. Millions are spent on advertising in every media format to be sure voters hear from candidates directly.

That wasn’t true years ago, when the main form of getting your political message to voters was by mail and through the newspaper. Televised debates sometimes gave you a brief glimpse into the thinking of contenders for the top office.

Back then, an endorsement by a trusted group gave a voter reassurance and direction.

Today’s gubernatorial race on the Democratic side so far has been a rush by some candidates to gain endorsements. They seem transfixed on what may turn out to be a desert mirage.

Brief Notice

This summer, Benjamin Jealous grabbed TV face-time and news stories with endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Corey Booker. That gained Jealous brief public notice 10 months before the Democratic primary. But little beyond that.

Booker is a popular though second-tier New Jersey senator whose backing for Jealous has even less weight in the Democratic primary for governor than his support from the militant National Nurses United and Maryland Working Families.

Jealous also has the ringing endorsement of the hero of far-left Democrats, Bernie Sanders. That is to be expected since Jealous toured the country as a Sanders surrogate in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (left) and Benjamin Jealous

Bernie’s support does help Jealous identify himself as a Sanders acolyte but remember, Sanders got just 34 percent of the Maryland primary vote. Still, in a crowded campaign that slice of the party vote could prove important.

Yet there’s no assurance Sanders backers will flock to Jealous’ side just because the failed presidential candidate supports him. It doesn’t work that way in this era. In the top races, today’s voters don’t like being told what to do.

Endorsements from labor unions used to be a potent force. For instance, what the AFL-CIO or the United Auto Workers union said mattered to members. No longer. Donald Trump gained few labor endorsements yet blue-collar workers strongly backed him.

Jealous’ endorsement from the service workers’ union, SEIU, could help produce volunteers for his campaign, especially in parts of Baltimore City. Yet the impact of that endorsement could prove modest statewide.

Similar Views on Education

Similarly, the backing of the Maryland State Education Association – a coveted honor contenders for governor badly want – will provide the honoree with some manpower and organizational help, but the vast majority of teachers will make up their own minds. They aren’t going to be dictated to by their union, especially since all the Democratic candidates have quite similar pro-education and pro-teacher positions.

The primary is still eight months away yet the cycle of endorsements began last summer – way, way before voters start contemplating the party’s gubernatorial candidates.

Even worse, the primary campaign could change dramatically before the filing deadline in late January, leaving early endorsers in a bind.

For instance, Emily’s List last week gave an early endorsement to a little-known candidate with zero elective experience, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings. This was more a function of the candidate’s inside-the-beltway networking skills than anything having to do with the Maryland governor’s race.

Emily’s List can provide a chunk of money for the endorsee, which will be helpful. But what if the campaign landscape takes an unexpected twist before the filing deadline?

Perhaps former Rep. Donna Edwards decides to switch races and files for governor rather than run for Prince George’s County Executive.

What if former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, an icon among feminist groups, finds retirement boring and runs for governor?

What if former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake takes a look at the gubernatorial field and jumps in?

What does Emily’s List do then?

Early endorsements can backfire. They also have little influence if announced hundreds of days before the actual balloting.

Taking a Chance

One endorsement that could continue to hold weight is Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s public backing for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.

Van Hollen and Baker have worked together politically for decades. Baker took a risky step by endorsing Van Hollen over Edwards in the 2016 Democratic Senate primary. (He won by 14 percentage points).

Now the senator is returning the favor.

Here’s the real significance: Van Hollen is a respected and popular officeholder, especially in his longtime home, Montgomery County, which is a key jurisdiction in the Democratic primary.

His support of Baker will matter there, especially if Van Hollen campaigns for Baker in the Washington suburbs, where the party’s political fulcrum now rests.

Harry Who?

Newspaper endorsements used play a pivotal part in elections. Having the backing of the Baltimore Sun or Washington Post was BIG news. One Baltimore politician once told me that gaining The Sun’s endorsement in his legislative district could mean as much as 10,000 extra votes. Now that’s power.

Dwindling newspaper readership, though, has altered that perspective. No longer are newspapers the main source of campaign information. Nor do voters trust newspapers the way they did in past decades.

Even in the case of Maryland’s most famous newspaper endorsement – the Baltimore Sun’s surprise backing of Harry Hughes for governor in 1978 – the potency of that front-page editorial turned out to be more legend than fact.

No, The Sun and The Evening Sun didn’t “elect” Harry Hughes. The endorsement wasn’t the difference-maker (he won by nearly 4 percentage points).

It did, though, add to the momentum for Hughes, a trend that had started weeks earlier. It gave him credibility.

Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

News-American story, by David Ahearn, on Harry Hughes’ surprise victory in 1978 Democratic primary for governor.

A post-election analysis by a respected pollster concluded, “The newspaper endorsement made Hughes a plausible candidate and the voters did the rest.”

So take this round of 21st century Maryland gubernatorial endorsements with a healthy dose of skepticism.

They aren’t what they used to be. In some elections, endorsements may not matter much at all.

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2 thoughts on “Endorsements: Not What They Used To Be

  1. Patrick McGrath

    Barry… Thoughtful column as usual, but I would disagree with you about the significance of the Sun endorsement. Without it, Harry Hughes would not have been elected.
    And a correction…that election was 1978, not 1968.
    Patrick McGrath

    Reply

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