Political Endorsements Hold Little Sway With Public, Study Finds

Despite the media fuss over the endorsement of a presidential candidate by political, religious and pop culture leaders, a new study finds that the public barely takes notice. James Dobson, the Colorado Springs king of Christian conservatism, endorsed Mike Huckabee for president last month, but few Republicans and independents noticed. Significantly more Democrats and independents were aware that Sen. Edward Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey had endorsed Barack Obama. But in all cases, recent findings by the National Annenberg Election Survey show endorsements have little impact on voters’ choices.

Just 16 percent of Republicans and independents were aware of Dobson’s endorsement of Huckabee, and only 22 percent of respondents who self-identified as “very conservative” said the endorsement would make them more likely to support the former Arkansas governor for president. 

“Endorsements can provide signals about candidates’ stands on issues, about their ideological dispositions and about the extent to which a candidate’s positions coincide with those of an endorsing group,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the National Annenberg Election Survey. “But this effect can’t occur unless the voter knows that the endorsement has taken place.”

Nearly 60 percent of Democrats and independents were aware that Kennedy had endorsed Obama for president, but three out of four said the endorsement would have no effect on how they vote. Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama captured the most public attention, with almost 75 percent of Democrats and independents aware of it. The survey did not ask whether the talk show host’s support would sway their vote.

Only 16 percent of Democrats and independents were aware that the United Farm Workers had endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Once aware, Hispanic voters were more than twice as likely as non-Hispanics to say they would support (deleted Sen.) Clinton as a result. Twenty-one percent of Hispanics and 8 percent of non-Hispanics said they would be more likely to support her after hearing of the endorsement.

Although the survey was conducted before the paper’s Feb. 21 article about John McCain’s ties to a lobbyist, the New York Times’ endorsement of the Arizona senator was found to hold little water among voters. Republicans self-identified as “very conservative” were 8 percent less likely to support McCain after hearing of the endorsement. A similarly small effect was felt among Democrats and independents regarding the paper’s endorsement of Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

Endorsements may not have much of an effect on voters who have already made up their minds, said Ken Winneg, managing director of the National Annenberg Election Survey.

“But in certain targeted cases, the effect, though small, may be just enough to provide a winning margin in a close race.”