Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy's 2008 Endorsement of Barack Obama

In the comments to Democratic Change Commission post I put up yesterday, Rob pointed out something about the late Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy last year that was running through my mind yesterday.

Rob writes:
"I know that I am slightly off topic here, but one of the tributes to Ted Kennedy is that his endorsement of the Obama candidacy was a key factor in Obama's nomination. As I recall, many commentators at the time suggested that the endorsement was a big blow to the Clinton campaign. I thought, though, in the aftermath it became a consensus opinion that none of the endorsements in that campaign meant much, even EMKs. Am I imagining something or is this point just part of the glow of appreciation of man who has just passed away?"

The underlying question is, "Did Kennedy's endorsement have an impact and if so, to what degree?" There's no doubt that it had an impact. But measuring the endorsement's influence is difficult. For starters, we know that the endorsements game is one of zero sums. If Barack Obama gets the endorsement, then Hillary Clinton cannot. [Well, I suppose flip-flopping superdelegates are an exception to that rule. John Lewis, I'm looking in your direction.] Beyond that, we also know that in a presidential primary election environment, where contests follow one another (or groups of contests follow other groups of contests), the easiest way to measure the impact is to see how elections results are affected following the endorsement. Now from a hypothetical standpoint, this impact would be the greatest within the political boundaries and among the constituency the endorser represents.

In 2008, Ted Kennedy's endorsement could have been hypothesized to have bolstered Obama's chances ahead of the Massachusetts primary. The timeline went like this:

January 27: Caroline Kennedy's op-ed endorsing Obama appears in the New York Times.
January 28: Ted Kennedy endorses Obama.
February 5: Clinton bests Obama in the Bay state by a count of 56% to 41%.

The immediate, back of the napkin reaction in our (UGA) discussion group, as I recall, was that the endorsement didn't seem to have had that much of an effect. Some of the reasons cited were that the endorsement was made too close to the actual voting in the contest (just a week prior), and that Massachusetts was one among MANY other states holding contests on February 5. Indeed, to that second point, the Obama campaign was focused on grassroots efforts particularly in the caucus states on February 5 and beyond. That excluded Massachusetts.

But that brings up an important distinction: short-term versus long-term influence of endorsements. Prior to and after February 5, it was becoming apparent that the Democratic nomination race would be one focused on the delegate count. That differed from past years where momentum quickly carried most eventual nominees to their party's nomination and delegate counts were an afterthought. But in 2008, everyone was focused on that counting to the detriment of everything else. Unlike other years, then, when a Kennedy-type endorsement, if it even came before the nomination was wrapped up, would have been rolled into the narrative of "Candidate X had the momentum and won the nomination," 2008 gave us a different angle. The race as it played out afforded us the opportunity to attempt to separate the long-term and short-term goals instead of having them overlap almost completely.

Again, in the immediate aftermath of Super Tuesday, the Kennedy endorsement seemed to have backfired. But as Obama ran up the score throughout his February streak of victories and finally won the nomination in the late spring, the Kennedy decision looked better and better.

If we step back and look long-term, the impact of the endorsement seems to have been that it helped Obama gain a foothold within the Washington establishment; a wing of the party that more often than not leaned toward Clinton. In that zero sum environment, then, Kennedy's endorsement did hurt Clinton's campaign, but only because it helped Obama's instead. But there's a spectrum there, right? Did it help Obama more or less than it hurt Clinton? Personally, I think it helped Obama more. Clinton was already doing pretty well among the Washington establishment. If you look at some of the posts over at DemConWatch just before Super Tuesday, you get sense of this. Upon Edwards dropping out just after the Florida primary on January 29, Clinton had a two to one (approximately) advantage in superdelegates over, but as Matt (DemConWatch contributor) pointed on the final day of the month, an interesting pattern was emerging among superdelegates. Obama was picking up momentum among the supers just before February 5; especially big name supers. The then-Illinois senator was outpacing Clinton and in fact gaining on her in that count.

Kennedy's endorsement was just a part of that gradual movement toward Obama and maybe even slightly ahead of the curve.

Note: I should mention that the view from the political science literature on the impact of endorsements is mixed. In many ways it is lacking mainly because of the issues I cited above. What is being influenced, in other words? Electoral outcomes are one possibility as are polling numbers in specific states whether measuring vote intention of overall approval. The problem with those measures is that there are obviously many other factors affecting their variation. Does that mean we pack it up and head home? No, but what that ultimately means is that we end up with mixed results ranging from an endorsement had no impact to an endorsement had a big impact.

UPDATE: Here are a few reactions to the Kennedy endorsement at the time:
ABCNews Political Radar
New York Times The Caucus
Here are a couple from The Fix (Washington Post): one and two

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Robert said...

Nice analysis, Josh. I had not thought so much about the superdelegates. I suspect that you are right there if nothing else than giving superdelegates cover to support Obama without looking disloyal. One of the comments at the time was that it would help him with the Hispanic vote, but that did not seem to be the case. I think that his team's strategy to capture as many delegates on Super Tuesday in proportional distribution with the complete lack of appreciation of those implications by her team. Also, it appeared that she expected to win on Super Tuesday and had no Plan B when she did not wrap it up then.

Josh Putnam said...

In the short-term the endorsement didn't seem to help with Hispanic voters but in the long-term (in the general election), it might have. I suspect that the GOP's position on immigration helped more in that regard, though.

I immediately had a vision of going out and checking the Hispanic proportion of the vote in pre-endorsement primary states and post-endorsement states, but that would likely prove inconclusive with so few early states. Florida was rendered meaningless and Nevada's caucus numbers (and any other caucus for that matter) would be tough to get a hold of. Oh well.

Matt said...

I think there may have been another effect on the superdelegates. Not just giving supers cover to announce for Obama, but, maybe even more importantly, freezing undecided supers from coming out for Clinton. There was a huge amount of pressure for supers to come out for Clinton in February - and, at the time, that was the safe decision, as Clinton had a large majority of the originally announced supers. If Kennedy's announcement kept, say 20-50 supers on the sideline (thinking, hmm, Kennedy just went for this Obama guy, maybe I should wait a little longer before endorsing), that would have been key in keeping any sense of momentum forming for Clinton.

Josh Putnam said...

This is an excellent point and another layer to the story above.