When do endorsements matter?

This article was co-authored by Chris Wilson and Alex Brunk

Endorsements are a matter of some debate among most political operatives and pollsters.  Conventional wisdom is that they don’t matter much.  When they do matter, it’s because they run contrary to expectations.  A Democratic Party official endorsing a Democratic candidate is not news.

Colin Powell endorsing Barack Obama was the kind of “man bites dog” story that can make news and move votes.  A key theme of McCain’s campaign was leadership, his years of experience in the military and government, and the premise that Obama was too risky.  Colin Powell’s profile, not only as a Republican, but as a great leader/foreign policy expert made his endorsement significant.  It caused voters to question basic assumptions about the leadership skills of both candidates and the foreign policy implications associated with the McCain v Powell choice.

Such seems to be the case with the Washington Post’s endorsement of Creigh Deeds last week in the Democratic primary for Governor of Virginia.

Polls over the last month have consistently shown Former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe with a substantial lead for the Democratic nomination for Governor.  He had been dead even with Delegate Brian Moran for most of the first part of the year, with Creigh Deeds trailing by about ten points.  But all polling in the month of May showed McAuliffe breaking away and taking the lead.

But this week, two polls were released that shed some serious doubt on the prospect of a McAuliffe victory.  The first, from GQR for the Brian Moran campaign, shows Moran in the lead with 29%, with Deeds at 27% and McAuliffe at 26%.  Essentially a three way tie.  A Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll (conducted through IVR) shows Creigh Deeds taking the lead with 27% with McAuliffe at 24% and Moran at 22%.

According to the PPP survey, between May 21st and June 2nd Deeds went from 11% to 23% in the critical Northern Virginia counties, representing 30% of the Democratic primary vote.  The Washington Post endorsed Deeds on May 22nd.  Since none of the candidates had spent heavily on TV in the DC media market before this week, the WaPo endorsement seems the most likely candidate for Creigh Deeds’ sudden jump in support in northern Virginia.

Why did this happen?   Because much like Powell’s endorsement of Obama, the Washington Post endorsement of Deeds calls into question some assumptions voters may have made about the race.  One of these is that Terry McAuliffe was the candidate of the DC Democratic elite.  Many voters might have assumed that he would have the support of an inside-the-beltway entity like the Washington Post.  Not getting their nod calls this assumption into question.

Simultaneously, as the only candidate not from Northern Virginia, Deeds may not have been seriously considered by voters here until some external event (the Washington Post endorsement) caused them to take a second look.

An endorsement from the Washington Post thrusts Deeds right into the mix in Northern Virginia and gives voters there the opportunity/motivation to examine him as a legitimate choice.  Judging by the polling, a lot of voters seem to be liking what they see.  And it could provide a rare example of a newspaper endorsement making a major different in one of the highest profile campaigns in the country this year.

What this means for our candidates in primaries this year and next is that there is value in highly public endorsements that challenge conventional wisdom about them–or their opponent.  Finding these contrarian endorsements is a valuable earned media effort that can help change the paradigm of a race.