Friday, January 11, 2008

Why Kerry’s Endorsement Won’t Help Obama

By Stuart Rothenberg

Shortly after Massachusetts Senator John Kerry announced his endorsement of Presidential hopeful Barack Obama, more than a few voices suggested that it could be a significant plus for Obama’s campaign.

One reporter described Kerry’s announcement as a “major endorsement,” and said that it “could boost Obama's presidential bid by attracting more support from the Democratic establishment, which has largely supported Clinton, the former first lady.”

Another political reporter suggested that the endorsement could “provide some organizational muscle to Obama,” while a third reporter offered the very curious comment that the endorsement would help because Obama “needs to show donors, voters and activists that he can attract more traditional support and win over the decision makers in the party.”

One media political blog reported that University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said that “Kerry can help by making some Democratic loyalists, particularly older women, take a second look at Obama.”

Even my good friend Chris Cillizza of seemed to accept that the Kerry endorsement was a significant plus for Obama. He, like many others, cited Kerry’s “3 million-plus person e-mail list from his run for president,” which he said “should be a financial windfall for Obama’s campaign.”

Cillizza added that “the remnants” of Kerry’s “national operation in every state” will mean “donors, activists and operatives” who can help Obama’s existing backers. Finally, he quoted an anonymous “Kerry advisor” (whom I expect isn’t so anonymous to veteran political reporters) crowing about Kerry’s organization in South Carolina.

The problem with all of these assessments is that they don’t hold up under scrutiny. Virtually all of them are based on the fundamentally flawed assumption that an endorsement in a Presidential race can somehow transfer the past supporters of one politician to another. That almost never happens.

Exactly how and why would Kerry’s endorsement help Obama attract support from the Democratic establishment? Are there a lot of people in the “Democratic establishment” who can’t make up their mind about which Democrat to support (or are supporting another candidate) but will follow the lead of a single U.S. senator, especially when many, many more elected officials have supported Clinton?

And why on earth would “older women” so value Kerry’s endorsement that they would “take a second look at Obama?” Where is the evidence or even the logic to that? If the supposedly incomparable Oprah Winfrey couldn’t deliver women voters to Obama in New Hampshire, why would John Kerry be able to do so in South Carolina or California?

Given that Obama has virtually matched the party’s top fundraiser, Hillary Rodham Clinton, dollar for dollar since he entered the race and has performed stunningly well in the early Democratic Presidential tests, there is no evidence or logic behind the assertion that Obama needs “to show donors, voters and activists that he can attract more traditional support and win over the decision makers in the party.”

Attracting more “donors, voters and activists,” of course, would help Obama, but it borders on ridiculous to say that there are a lot of voters out there who are waiting to see that Obama can attract “more traditional support” before they support him. That’s not how real people think.

Chris’s comment about Kerry’s list, which was echoed by others, at the very least, seems misleading. Some of those 3 million people must have already contributed to either Obama or Clinton. Am I gullible enough to believe that Clinton donors on that list will now write a check to Obama because Kerry has endorsed him?

And while Kerry may be able to raise money for the party’s campaign committee or House and Senate candidates, that’s very different from raising money for a Presidential hopeful in a race where the top three candidates are already well known. Will he raise some for Obama? Yes, of course. But it’s not likely to be so much as to affect the Obama-Clinton contest.

Finally, the idea that Kerry could be a significant help to Obama in South Carolina, a state where Obama is far stronger than Kerry ever was, is difficult to believe.

Too many observers, I’m afraid, seem to think that every campaign development is important and changes the political equation. Even smart people, like Chris, who will tell you that most endorsements by individual members of Congress don’t matter much, get swept along with the campaign hype.

They all should remember the words repeated most recently by Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who, when asked about an endorsement in his own race, said, “I find that with any endorsement, you get half of their friends and all of their enemies.”

Even if some endorsements matter, there is no compelling evidence that I know of that Kerry’s will. Indeed, the endorsement by Kerry, who is more associated with the past than with the future, fundamentally contradicts the Obama message and could turn out to be a liability.