Sunday, September 20, 2009

Is All That Glitters, Really Gold?

Newsom endorses Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton endorses Newsom. To the surprise of no one, the former President and his ripening, young protégé will take the state’s fundraising season by storm. As the Godfather of political favors makes his way up and down the coast, we cannot help but wonder: what does it all mean?

The University of Missouri-St. Louis recently published a study entitled Influential or Much Ado about Nothing: An Examination of Statewide Political Endorsements in the 2008 Democratic Caucus/Primary Season. The author argues that the endorsement of a candidate (or lack thereof) bears important implications to a whole host of sources beyond gaining the support of the voters. Ideally, from a candidate’s standpoint, endorsements have a highly substantial impact on campaign contributions, poll support and media coverage – not to mention a contagious effect on additional endorsements.

Now 14 months away from electing a new governor, and Newsom pulls out the big guns; all the while Jerry Brown continues a soul-searching courtship dance under the alias of Jerry Brown for Attorney General. Does this mean Newsom will peak too early? Not exactly. According to survey results from the Annenberg Election Study conducted in 2000, endorsements indeed play a salient role in primary contests. This study indicates that in the early months of a primary election, individual endorsements can and do influence voter choice.

But how much influence can a former President have on local voters? The University of Missouri study speculates, “Elite endorsements are significant predictors of both parties’ primary vote.” While it certainly does not get more elite than Bill Clinton in the minds of many Democratic voters, it may not be the bellwether Newsom was looking for in terms of electoral support. It is true that Clinton is well-known and well-liked in California – particularly in the wake of his role in negotiating the release of two Southern California journalists from North Korea. Not to mention Clinton’s Rolodex of high-dollar Democratic insiders, which many speculate he has been amassing for this exact occasion. But with a woefully short list of prominent state leaders on his roster, how much traction can Newsom expect from the endorsement of the former President?

Since the Democratic field still has yet to be solidified, let us examine the impact of endorsements on the Republican primary races (also not entirely solidified, but further along in gestation than Newsom vs. Brown head-scratcher). Log on to Steve Poizner’s website, and see the whole host of about 100 prominent state leaders in Poizner’s endorsement camp. Meg Whitman takes a different approach, featuring big-ticket Republican presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney on her roster of supporters. While Whitman’s recent dip may have more to do with this week's “playing for field position” in her refusal to debate with fellow Republican primary candidates than it does her endorsement registry, will Poizner’s list of renowned state officials – less “elite” than a Clinton, McCain or Romney – make him the more sustainable candidate?

My guess is no. Big-ticket names get candidates the donations they need in this early primary season. In the midst of a high level of distrust that voters maintain for state officials, it would be hard to believe that State Senators and Assemblymen can improve Poizner’s legitimacy and standing with voters. The University of Missouri study finds significant electoral impact beyond the cash coffers in fundraising season. While his recent rise in the polls this week adds credence to the notion that endorsements can be the shot in the arm needed by a candidate like Newsom, we should be on the look out for how much gusto this charming duo can sustain.

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