To endorse, or not to endorse – is that the question?


Endorsing candidates is time-honored.  Soon after a candidate decides to run for office, s/he starts contacting people, asking for their endorsement.

Endorsers are different from supporters or contributors.  Supporters work for you.  They put out your sign, knock on doors, pass your literature, make phone calls, offer advice and help edit your words.  Contributors send money or donate goods and labor.

But endorsers let you use their names to influence voters.

Sometimes these roles overlap, and we sometimes conflate these terms, but these are very different functions — and can be different again from constituents (I can address constituents in another post).

Influencing the voters

There’s an interesting tension about endorsements in local races — and I don’t just mean Council and County Commission.  I mean any race that’s sufficiently local that we might personally know the candidates or those who endorse them.

Why do we look to see who has endorsed a candidate?

There are lots of candidates and entirely too many issues for many of us.  It’s hard to pay attention to state, regional, county and city issues and still get the grass mowed, the Olympics enjoyed, and dinner made.  But some of us pay attention — or are involved — in local politics at one level or another.

Which judicial candidate gets your vote?  If you don’t even recognize their names, call someone who will.  Which candidate for County Commission would work for your issue?  If you don’t know, look for someone who does to offer advice.

Endorsements are a more formal way to get this information.  If you look at an endorsement list, you know whether someone whose advice you’d take is on it.  You know whether it’s filled with people whose names you don’t recognize, or who seem to be a narrow group of neighbors and family members.  You may also look to see whose name is missing —  because if a candidate doesn’t receive the endorsement of someone you respect and who is politically active, it’s fair to wonder about it.

Why do candidates seek endorsements?

Candidates know that most of us don’t have time to be current on all the issues.  Any candidate who has direct voter contact learns that most voters don’t know who their elected officials are or what those folks can do.  So candidates want to make the decisions about which candidate to vote for much easier.

Many candidates are completely unknown to a majority of voters.  They haven’t been politically or socially active; they haven’t worked hard for other candidates or spoken in public about issues.  An endorsement from someone well known indicates that the candidate has been doing something or saying something that makes a difference — even if you don’t know it.

Candidates hope that if you see a trusted public or private name on their list of endorsements you will take the recommendation.  It’s that simple.

Why does anyone endorse a candidate?

I just cannot speak for everyone.  But this is what I’ve learned about myself:

I used to read endorsement ads very closely, because I didn’t know the candidates.  If someone I respected, or even generally agreed with on local issues, endorsed a candidate, that was a mark in their favor.  If someone I generally DISagreed with on local issues endorsed a candidate, that was a mark against.

When I began being well enough known that candidates thought my name might be of value, they started asking for my endorsement.  And really, it’s very flattering to be seen as someone who might influence others.

And when I was elected to City Council, candidates really began seeking my endorsement.  They may have hoped that my public support would indicate something about their qualities, their knowledge, their ability to work with others.

Influencing the voters

I don’t usually like to repeat myself, but there’s only one reason anyone looks to see who endorsed whom. And there’s only one reason to endorse.  And that’s to influence the outcome.  I’m political enough to want to do that.

I want people who represent me to be people who I think will make the right decisions.  I don’t ask much of my elected officials; I rarely call, I email less often.  I evaluate the candidates before the election, and if my choice wins, I am satisfied.  (Unless, of course, I think that elected official is likely to or already has made a bone-headed decision.  I might try to affect the decision if it’s not already done; I will remember the bad moves.  Wouldn’t you?)

So I want my choices to affect the choices of others.  If a neighbor drops by wanting advice about which judicial candidate, I want to offer a name.  If a former co-worker calls, asking about County Commission, I want to tell everything I know about both candidates, and give my personal reasons for selecting the candidate I have endorsed.  And if I feel strongly, I’ll let a candidate use my name on their website or in their advertising.

Why not endorse in every race, then?

I know it’s hard to imagine, but that list of endorsements that candidates present to the public represents just a few people whose names might mean something to you.  A candidate only asks for endorsements from those they hope will influence the outcome.

There are reasons to refuse to endorse, too.  Lots of them.

Perhaps both candidates contacted you, and you didn’t want to say ‘no’ to an old friend or ‘yes’ to someone you barely knew.  Perhaps you don’t think either candidate is worthy to fill the seat of the outgoing incumbent.  Perhaps your best friend is supporting candidate X, whom you really dislike — but you like your friend, and don’t want to step on his/her toes by publicly endorsing the other guy.

Perhaps something else.

But there are other things to learn from endorsements.

Endorsements influence the outcome — or are supposed to.

If Ann Arbor dot com endorsed candidates this year, you might read the editorial to see whether you agreed with the rationale.  I don’t know whether it would influence your vote; I know it wouldn’t influence mine.

If the Michigan Daily endorses candidates this year, you might miss it.

Positive influence can make a difference.

If a union, or a social group, or a political lobbying group endorsed a candidate, it might make some difference to you if you generally agreed with the goals of that union, social group or lobbying group.

Negative influence counts, too.

Endorsements represent factions, too.  They are useful for determining who the candidate owes, and how much.  If you like those relationships, your vote is influenced; if you believe those relationships are wrong in some way, then your vote is influenced.

So it’s beneficial for candidates to carefully consider who they ask for endorsements, and whose endorsement they publish.  And since endorsements represent relationships, it’s also important for those who are asked for an endorsement to offer it only after consideration.

My personal policy

This blog is about me, and the way I think.  It’s not about specific issues that I might have to turn into public policy.  So I’m free to offer opinions and explain my policy.

Before I was elected to Council, I endorsed fairly freely.  If I knew the candidate and I generally felt s/he was willing to place the public interest before private interests, I’d endorse.

When I ran for Council in 2007, I thought hard about whether to ask for endorsements.  I chose not to do so.  I hoped I didn’t need name recognition, and I decided that I wouldn’t want to take part in factions.  This was a completely personal choice.

Members of Council endorsed someone else in that primary race.  I spent the next year waiting for them to get over their disappointment that I’d won.  In some cases, I feel as if I’m still waiting.

In 2008, I thought hard about whether to endorse.  I chose to endorse candidates running for other offices, but not for City Council.  I was willing to support Council candidates (see what that means, above) but not to let candidates use my name.  I’ve always felt that a volunteer was more valuable than a name.

Since then I have continued that practice.  It’s not always comfortable for me, as I want to see some folks at the big table, but would rather others didn’t have a seat.  However, I made the decision that whichever decisions the voters make, I’d be working with those newly elected members of Council.  And I wanted to be able to feel positive about their election.

Influencing the voters

I know.  It’s redundant.  But as the primary election approaches — there’s just a week — I hope you’ll think about the candidates involved in primaries for local office, including the judges.  If you vote in the Democratic primary, your ballot will ask for your US Senator and Representative as well as local (state, county and city) offices.  If you want to know who I support, feel free to ask.

And in the immortal words of Lazarus Long:

There may be no candidates and measures you want to vote for… But there are certain to be ones you want to vote against. In case of doubt, vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong. If this is too blind for your taste, consult some well-meaning fool (there is always one around) and ask his advice. Then vote the other way. This enables you to be a good citizen (if such is your wish) without spending the enormous amount of time that truly intelligent exercise of the franchise requires.

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