In the age of the Internet, when everybody wants to get his two cents into the debate and anybody can invent his own facts and rant in a blog or sometimes even a newspaper column, endorsements don’t mean much. They particularly don’t mean much coming from a congressman.
Endorsements are a holdover from a happier day before endless strings of primaries upset the time-tested process of selecting the party nominees. The back rooms, smoke and all, produced the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, FDR and Harry S. Truman. The primaries have produced such giants as Michael Dukakis, George McGovern and John Kerry. An endorsement by a congressman, a blogger, a pundit or a guitar-plucker long past his sell-by date are mere ego trips, fitting only for the new age. But if a wannabe priest, a moonstruck gasbag and a nutty sawbones can be taken seriously as presidential candidates, well, why not? Is this a great country, or what?
Nevertheless, even the politicians are growing weary of the endorsement game. Mitt Romney is still playing the game, boasting of his high-profile endorsements by politicians. But they haven’t seemed to do much for him. He’s collecting delegates in spite of his high-profile endorsements.
High-profile endorsers pledged their troth in Oklahoma (Sen. Tom Coburn), Tennessee (Sen. Lamar Alexander) and North Dakota (Sen. John Hoeven) for Super Tuesday primaries. The Massachusetts mauler lost all three of these primaries. In earlier primaries, Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed him in South Carolina (he lost) and former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska endorsed Newt Gingrich (he lost, too).
And not just high profile endorsers. The laptop computer enables anyone with access to the Internet to pretend to be a kingmaker, or at least an alderman-maker. Once upon a time in a place far away, a storefront preacher in my hometown, who broadcast his sermons on a 250-watt radio station with a signal that on a good day reached almost to the city limits, set out to throw his weight, such as it was, into presidential politics. He was a man with a cosmic vision if a poor knowledge of geography. “Hear me, London, England,” he cried. “Hear me, Paris, France. Hear me, Rome, Italy.” And then he set out instructions for Election Day. That was the last anyone ever heard of his crusade. He should have lived long enough for someone to invent the laptop.
Now even the high-profile endorsers are feeling a bit sheepish about their ambitions. “Here’s my take on endorsements, including my own,” the humbled Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who endorsed Mr. Romney for her state’s primary (he won), tells Politico, the Capitol Hill newspaper. “Voters are going to make up their minds on their own.” She thinks endorsements can help raise money and set up campaign organizations, vastly important enough in their way, but are not capable of delivering actual votes on Election Day.
Other candidates who succeeded despite obstacles thrown up by party biggies cite endorsements as crucial to an attempt to reclaim the soul, if any, of the party. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky says the pursuit of his father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, for the Republican nomination is one such attempt. In the son’s view, Ron Paul’s quixotic campaign to nowhere is to “gain influence in which direction the Republican Party takes.” A legitimate quest, but it muddies the nominee-selection picture.
Editors have debated whether newspaper endorsements are worth very much, whether they actually persuade anyone to vote for a specific candidate or whether such endorsements go beyond massaging a newspaper mogul’s ego. Newspaper mogulhood ain’t what it used to be, when a newspaper was king of the mountain, but endorsements persist, and except when a newspaper is particularly disliked they don’t do much harm. Where a newspaper endorsement is effective is in local races. Without a newspaper endorsement, which is presumably the result of research and reflection, most voters would have no clue to the qualifications of candidates for keeper of municipal records, state commissioner of railroads or county assessor. Important jobs all, but the average voter will never have heard of the job-seekers.
“Endorsements sometimes matter, and sometimes don’t,” Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who endorsed Mr. Romney in 2008, tells Politico. He thinks an endorsement at the right moment in a tight race can sometimes make a difference. Or not. “For someone who endorses a lot, like I do, I haven’t figured it out, either.”
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.