Even before the race for president has narrowed down to one candidate on each side of the aisle, it is clear this is a race to be savored. Not only do the candidates vying for office make it so, but the sheer length of the contest and the seemingly bottomless well of resources poured into the campaigns make it unique.
There is at least one way, however, in which this election cycle mirrors every one that has come before it: political endorsements still seem to matter.
It's a timeless feature of campaign season, harking back to an era when terms like "party bosses" and "smoke-filled rooms" were still relevant. Yet, unlike those lost terms, political endorsements have not only survived, they've even thrived throughout this campaign cycle. Which makes the question all the more relevant: How, exactly, does an endorsement help a candidate win votes?
First, it's important to distinguish which type of endorsement it is. From a communications perspective, an endorsement from a large union might have an impact in a candidate's ability to amass Election Day votes.
"If you take a look at somewhere like California, one significant endorsement is [the Service Employees International Union], which is 600,000 plus members," says Robert Mathias, MD of Ogilvy's Washington DC office. SEIU endorsed Sen. Barack Obama on February 1. "Theoretically, that represents the potential of 600,000 votes. It's also potentially 600,000 new sources of donations. It's potentially 600,000 word of mouth advocates. When you look at a campaign like this, that's one of the most critically important aspects. It's arms and legs. It's an organizational opportunity to put boots on the street."
Jeanine Meyer Rodriguez, campaign director for SEIU California State Council, says an endorsement from the union equals full organizational support. That means voter education efforts, including work site visits, mail campaigns, and a get-out-the-vote canvas on Election Day. Ethan Rome, public affairs director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), agrees, noting the union deliberately endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton back in October, so it had enough time to organize its ground operation for her candidacy.
An endorsement from an elected official can bring similar benefits, especially when that official agrees to stump on the campaign trail, or open his or her rolodex for potential donations, says Hans Noel, assistant professor in the government department at Georgetown University. Noel says research shows that voters are affected by the pattern of endorsements from established officials.
"If you look at voter behavior in the primary, people who identify as Republican or Democrat are more likely to follow the lead of a collection of people in the party," he notes. "Individual endorsements probably don't reach ordinary voters, but they will certainly get a sense of a big-picture aggregate."
Organizational benefits aside, there is, of course, the matter of attracting positive news coverage. Landing a key endorsement allows the campaign to dominate the news cycle for a day or more. Mathias points out that the Obama campaign timed its one-two punch of Caroline and Ted Kennedy to perfection, when Caroline published an Op-Ed in the Sunday Times and her uncle endorsed the Senator the following day.
There is also the newspaper endorsement. Despite talk of newspapers' diminishing influence, endorsements have an impact from a PR perspective, says Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute.
"It can be used the same way an author might use a blurb for a book," Clark says. "You take a kernel of the endorsement and use it to support your messages."
Despite the modern ability of campaigns to reach voters in diverse ways, the endorsement remains an important measuring stick, and a classic example of third-party validation. From a communications standpoint, the ability to spread your message via word of mouth, gain organization advantage, and drive voters to the booth for your candidate is still the preferred way to win an election.