Oh, what a tangled web endorsements weave: Candidates head toward election armed with backings of special interest groups
With hundreds of special interest groups and clubs issuing candidate endorsements each election cycle, it can be difficult to keep tabs on who is backing whom.
But for members of the organizations — from the League of Conservation Voters and National Riffle Association to the more obscure Brotherhood of Boilermakers — the process offers a valuable way to track which candidate stands with them on key issues. When a particular topic is of the utmost importance to a voter, an endorsement could sway the individual one way or another.
“I think it can kind of nudge people who are in that organization,” said Chris Cooper, an associate professor of political science and director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute.
Endorsements offer another opinion for undecided voters honing their final decision in the march toward Election Day — and let members of the organization know which candidates share their views on specific issues.
However, for the average voter, endorsements play a backseat role in elections. They are there, but voters do not generally notice whom the Family Research Council or ACLU are supporting.
For the average person, a special interest group endorsement will not persuade them to vote for a candidate, particularly in high profile races.
“Most voters are not thinking about endorsements,” Cooper said. “I don’t think most voters think, ‘Gee, they didn’t get an endorsement.’”
It is unclear when the tradition of endorsements by special interest groups began, but they have been a part of the election process since at least the early 1900s.
In its simplest form, the opinion of a knowledgeable, trusted friend can be considered an endorsement. Although it’s not official, it could help sway that individual’s vote. However, backing by major newspapers and national organizations are the most recognizable endorsements.
Questioning their politics
The endorsement process — whether by unions, government reform groups, trade associations or membership-driven clubs — can follow several different routes.
Many mail out questionnaires to candidates, which are the easiest way to get to know many candidates at one time. Simply mail out a pre-planned list of questions and wait for a response.
The hitch is will they or won’t they take the time to answer the questions. Candidates have many other duties on their plate —fund-raising, shaking hands, giving speeches — and don’t always get around to replying, sometimes because of lack of time but other times, the candidate could see it as a hopeless case. A pro-life organization is not going to support someone who is pro-choice, for example.
And, because of the number of special interest groups, questionnaires can sometimes go unreturned.
In some cases, an endorsement is a no-brainer. Hubris did not set in when current U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, endorsed his former chief of staff, Democrat Hayden Rogers, who is running for Shuler’s seat in Congress.
Other times, an endorsement can be a surprise.
The Sportsmen and Animal Owners Voting Alliance, a group focused on propagating the views of hunters, though nonpartisan, has more often than not supported Republicans.
However, in Western North Carolina, the group has previously supported Shuler — a testament to the mountain’s unique breed of conservative Democrats. And it is now backing Rogers, who himself is a hunter.
To figure out which candidate it wants to endorse, SAOVA sends out a questionnaire to candidates asking basic questions that help gauge who would be most likely to fight for their causes. Then, an endorsement panel reviews the answers and decides whom to support.
“We provide a tool for voters,” said Susan Wolf, spokesperson for SAOVA. “A lot of people use this information and find it very valuable.”
Every vote counts
Another strategy for special interest groups deciding who to throw their endorsement to is old-fashioned independent research, such as analyzing a candidate’s positions, voting records or statements on relevant issues.
Voting records only work when sizing up a current office holder, however. That forces some special interest groups, like the National Federation of Independent Business, to take a two-pronged approach.
For new candidates, the group sends out a short survey about “issues that affect (businesses) on a day-to-day basis and affect their bottom line,” said Greg Thompson, the North Carolina director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
But, incumbents are judged based on their voting record.
Its political action committee evaluates all the information and decides what candidates to support. All the vetting is to answer one question.
“Who is going to be friendly and helpful to them as far as their business is concerned?” Thompson said.
This year, the NFIB endorsed Mark Meadows, the Republican candidate for the 11th U.S. congressional district.
The good and bad effects
A number of special interest groups also operate PACs, which raise and distribute money to campaigns as they see fit. A candidate could point to an endorsement when fund-raising.
“It is a lot easier to raise money from members of that group,” Cooper said. “You can hit those people with targeted mail.”
On the flip side, however, not all endorsements are something a candidate would welcome with open arms. Endorsements of one candidate can even be used against them by their opponent.
When the Sierra Club, a left-leaning environmental group, recently endorsed Rogers, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a release, hoping the endorsement would paint Rogers as too liberal for the conservative district.
What is sometimes more interesting, however, is who does not endorse a candidate. The State Employees Association of North Carolina did not put its support behind either gubernatorial candidate, Republican Pat McCrory or Democrat Walter Dalton.
“We did not feel like the two major party candidates had enough history of positive support for public employees and working families,” said Kevin LeCount, a spokesman with the association. “We couldn’t stand behind either one.”
The workers union has committees in 16 regions that sift through questionnaires and interview various state candidates. The committees decide whether a candidate deserves an endorsement.
Although roles vary, endorsements do offer insight into the political process. In the primary, when Republicans are battling Republicans and Democrats are competing amongst themselves, endorsements, particularly from former and current politicians, can indicate which candidate has party support.
“In the primary, they signal how much the party is behind you,” Cooper said.
Without party support, a candidate could not hope to win an election.
In both the primary and General Election, endorsements, in addition to a candidate’s ability to fund-raise, also show if the campaign is operating like a well-oiled machine.
“I think it is more about what they signify about party organization and who you can get behind you,” Cooper said. An inefficient campaign does not bode well come November.
As for the candidates, it is up to them how much emphasis their campaign puts on seeking endorsements. They decide whether or not to fill out a survey or take time to go through an interview process.
In the case of endorsements from influential individuals, a candidate can’t simply ask someone to endorse them out of the blue. They must invest time letting that person get to know them and their platform better.
Rogers, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, said he is thankful for the support he has received from organizations, particularly the North Carolina Association of Educators, but gathering endorsements is not a priority for his campaign.
“Our focus has really been more about ultimately getting the endorsement of the voters,” Rogers said.
He added that endorsements will not likely affect everyday voters’ choices but could curry favor among people who align themselves with a certain group.
“It could make a difference if that is the most important thing to that voter,” Rogers said.
Rogers challenger, Republican Mark Meadows said he believes endorsements are consequential but not the end all be all for a candidate’s success.
“Local endorsements are powerful,” Meadows said, giving a nod toward the support he has received from county sheriffs in the district. “We see endorsements as being important because they give credibility.”
Who’s endorsing whom?
Since they announced their candidacy for the U.S. 11th District congressional seat, Republican Mark Meadows and Democrat Hayden Rogers began gathering support, both verbal and financial from voters, organization and other politicians.
Here is a list of some of the key endorsements the candidates have received:
Family Research Council
Grassroots North Carolina
Eagle Forum, national and North Carolina chapter
Right to Life, national and North Carolina chapter
Patriot Voices - Rick Santorum PAC
HUCK PAC - Mike Huckabee PAC
60 Plus Association
National Federation of Independent Business
Michael Farris, founder of Home School Legal Defense & Madison Project
North Carolina Association of Educators
Blue Dog Coalition
U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler
Sportsmen and Animal Owners Voting Alliance
National Rifle Association
American Postal Workers Union, Local 277
The Sierra Club