Shortly after Republican State Senate candidate Tim Summers of Bentonville announced the support of 3 major Walmart leaders, his opponent, Bart Hester, countered with a high-profile endorsement of his own, Arkansas native and Major League Baseball all-star pitcher Cliff Lee.
Lee’s endorsement of Hester had universal appeal and the angle of a well-known athlete and one-time University of Arkansas standout. Summers’ support from Walmart executives clearly sent a signal to Bentonville voters that he had the influential backing of the community’s biggest corporate interest.
Summers also recently received the backing of former Third District Congressman Asa Hutchinson, who made pre-recorded phone calls throughout the Senate district.
Endorsements are a collection of medals that candidates and campaigns covet as they seek to build coalitions of support and shape their public image of invincibility or momentum. But do they really make a difference?
“I think endorsements matter, but primarily when the voter doesn’t know very much about the candidate. They matter most as a cue in the absence of other cues like party labels. Obviously, this makes them important in the primary. They matter less when there is a lot of advertising, which can shape the image of the candidate,” says Dr. Ann Clemmer, a UALR professor of political science and an unopposed GOP State Representative candidate from Benton.
Clemmer adds that in a primary, they can give the candidate credibility, especially if it is a crowded candidate field. She’s also seen endorsements provide the slightest edge in highly competitive races.
“I have seen NRA [National Rifle Association] endorsements make the difference in tight elections. Obviously, the group has to matter to enough individuals to make a difference. And, the endorsement has to be publicized,” Clemmer said.
Dr. Jay Barth, professor of political science at Hendrix College, says endorsements can have multiple effects on a campaign, depending on the person or group and where it comes in to play. For instance, endorsements may carry heavy sway in judicial elections where candidates are restricted from declaring public positions and typically run on their biographies and previous legal experience.
“It’s very much a mixed bag with endorsements,” said Barth, who unsuccessfully ran for a State Senate seat as a Democrat in 2010. “In general, there are few endorsements that have a large direct impact on the outcome of local elections.”
Barth notes that endorsements may lead to volunteers or voter persuasion, such as a teachers’ union seal of approval, or it could lead to the rocket fuel of every political campaign: cash.
Tom Cotton, a Republican candidate for Arkansas’ newly constructed Fourth District seat, touts a number of endorsements on his web site. Cotton, a newcomer to state politics, has been endorsed by the Conservative Victory Fund, Club for Growth and Citizens United Political Victory Fund, which channeled $10,000 to his campaign.
Cotton has also been endorsed publicly by former south Arkansas Congressman Jay Dickey. Cotton’s main competitor, Beth Anne Rankin, has received high-profile support from her one-time boss, former Arkansas Governor and 2008 Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
“As far as current endorsements go, I guess it remains to be seen whether they are effective,” Clemmer observed. “Another thing to consider is the crossover voting in the open primaries in Arkansas, for those of another party, the party leader endorsements will mean less.”
Barth sees endorsements also contributing to momentum for candidates, which can be advantageous in key elections.
“Piling up a bunch of endorsements can contribute to a candidate’s sense of inevitability,” he said.
While former candidates and politically active groups offer frequent and healthy endorsements, Barth says media endorsements can still make a difference, too.
“In certain races, newspaper endorsements might matter at the margins. For example, in a small town race the endorsement of the local newspaper could matter greatly. In a Hillcrest dominated race, the endorsement of the Arkansas Times would be quite valuable,” Barth said.
Hillcrest is a liberal-leaning neighborhood in central Little Rock. Warwick Sabin, a former Arkansas Times associate editor, is embroiled in a Democratic primary race with Mark Robertson for the District 33 House seat. The winner of the primary will win the seat as there is no GOP opposition.
Sabin has locked up endorsements from the Arkansas Education Association, the AFL-CIO, the Arkansas State Employees Association, and the Arkansas Realtors Association.
“In a primary, I can’t think of any endorsements that could be used against a candidate successfully. Although back in the day, ACORN was a desirable endorsement yet just before its disbanding no candidate would have wanted that endorsement,” said Barth.
Arkansas’ primary season will be mostly settled on May 22, although a few crowded races are likely to go to subsequent run-offs in June. A candidate’s primary election endorsement strategy can shift or work against the candidate in the general election in some instances.
For example in the 2010 U.S. Senate primary, Blanche Lincoln embraced the support of President Barack Obama. Lincoln used direct mail and door hangers showing pictures of her with Obama as she campaigned in heavily African-American neighborhoods. In the general election, that campaign material disappeared from the campaign trail although Republican supporters of John Boozman were quick to remind voters of Lincoln’s connection to the unpopular President.
“I have always wondered about endorsements hurting a candidate. I could see scenarios where that could happen,” Clemmer said.
Barth agrees. “It’s possible that a labor-endorsed candidate could have that used against him or her in the general election, but only with specific, anti-labor audiences.”