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Ted Kennedy and the Hierarchy of Endorsements

As regular readers know, The Fix isn't one to make a big deal out of political endorsements. A politician or celebrity choosing to stand up for a candidate isn't as influential or meaningful as many in the media (not to mention the campaigns) would like us to believe.

Photo Gallery: Kennedy and Obama.

But not all endorsements are created equal, and that's certainly the case with today's endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama's (Ill.) presidential campaign by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

In the hierarchy of endorsements, Kennedy coming out for Obama falls into the category of "symbolic endorsement," the most coveted of all because it is not simply the typical pat on the back and photo-op, but rather it signifies something larger about a candidate.

Kennedy, after all, is not simply the senior senator from Massachusetts. He's Ted Kennedy -- last of the brothers of the original first family in American politics (sorry Bill and Hillary) and standardbearer for liberals everywhere. For people of a certain vintage, Ted Kennedy serves as the embodiment of what it means to be a Democrat.

Winning Kennedy's endorsement then, is important for Obama in a number of ways. It -- coupled with the endorsement by John F. Kennedy's daughter Caroline Kennedy over the weekend -- makes a tangible connection in voters' mind between JFK, Robert F. Kennedy and Obama. That is a crucial connection as Obama seeks to continue to transform himself from a candidate into a movement on Feb. 5 and beyond. Kennedy's endorsement also gives Obama some opening to approach a group of rank-and-file Democrats -- union households, middle class whites -- who will be two of the crucial groups up for grabs on Feb. 5.

Of course, for every symbolic endorsement that matters, there's one that backfires. Remember when former Vice President Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean's campaign in late 2003? It was supposed to be the final piece of Dean's puzzle -- a symbol that the establishment of the party was lining up behind the insurgent candidate. And yet, it signaled the beginning of the end for Dean, as the activists who were his base began to see him as controlled by the very establishment they sought to take down.

Few endorsements qualify as "symbolic." The Fix, a huge sports lover, owes a massive debt of gratitude in concocting a hierarchical paradigm for assessing endorsements to Bill Simmons -- aka the Sports Guy -- and his 13 levels of losing. The hierarchy chart below is presented from most influential to least influential.

Symbolic Endorsements: The most important of all for the reasons noted above.

The State-Specific (Statewide) Endorsement: This sort of endorsement comes from an elected official with a proven network -- either financial or organizational -- in a state. Gov. Charlie Crist's (R-Fla.) endorsement of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) over the weekend is a perfect example of this sort of endorsement, as is Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's decision to back Hillary Clinton.

These state-specific endorsements won't typically deliver a victory for the endorsed candidate but can help around the margins. Unlike the symbolic endorsement, these sorts of endorsements are of limited utility outside of the endorser's home state. They may even be of limited utility inside a state; witness former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's (Iowa) active support of Clinton in Iowa (she finished third) or Sen. Judd Gregg's (N.H.) backing of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney in the Granite State's 2000 and 2008 primaries, respectively.

The Celebrity Endorsement: This is the hardest of all endorsements to understand and quantify. How much did Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Obama matter in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina? It's almost impossible to know. She certainly brought out thousands of people who might not otherwise have attended a political rally, giving Obama a chance to address them in person. But did she convince those non-political people to vote for Obama? Who knows.

Even without being able to quantify what a celebrity endorsement means, it's clear that winning the backing of Oprah drew Obama millions of dollars worth of free press across the country. Same goes for Bruce Springsteen's advocacy (and concerts) on behalf of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

There are gradations within celebrity endorsements, of course. An A-list actor/rock star/athlete (Magic Johnson, Barbra Streisand) gets you beaucoup attention. A B-lister (Chuck Norris) less so. (Norris's ubiquitousness on the campaign trail has served as more than just a celebrity endorsement for former governor Mike Huckabee, however. Norris has become a symbol of the average guy-ness of Huckabee, although we just can't bring ourselves to say Chuck Norris amounts to a "symbolic" endorsement.)

Once you go beyond the b-list, the law of diminishing returns applies. Maybe we are misjudging the American public, but it's hard to imagine that Sylvester Stallone's decision to McCain makes one whit of difference in the big picture.

The State Specific (Non-Statewide) Endorsement: It's a toss up as to whether a state-specific, non-statewide endorsement is a bigger or smaller deal than a celebrity endorsement. Would a candidate rather have Springsteen or a state legislator from Iowa? Springsteen. But Stallone versus a state legislator? Probably the state legislator.

Not all state legislators are created equal. Some -- like state Sen. Jeff Danielson (D) in Iowa, state Sen. Lou 'Allesandro (D) in New Hampshire or Florida state House Speaker Marco Rubio(R) -- bring with them political networks and caché with a certain segment of voters. (Danielson is a professional firefighter; Rubio is a leading voice among Cuban-Americans in the Sunshine State.)

Most state legislators, however, don't fit into this category. In states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, state legislators come under huge amounts of pressure to support someone and often do so to simply stop the incoming calls from candidates. They do little else other than put their name on a press release and -- perhaps -- squire the candidate around when he or she comes into their district/county.

Even those state lawmakers who are seen as powerbrokers in their respective states have the potential to over promise and underperform. In South Carolina, state Sen. Darrell Jackson (D) was the subject of a highly competitive recruitment battle between Clinton and Obama -- ultimately won by the New York senator. Jackson was widely credited with delivering John Edwards a very strong showing in black community in the 2004 South Carolina presidential primary but was unable to replicate that magic for Clinton, as she won just 19 percent of the African American vote last Saturday

The Pariah Endorsement: While most politicians will take any endorsement they can get, some endorsements can do more harm than good. The latest example is the New York Times's endorsement of McCain, an endorsement immediately used by the Arizona senator's rivals as a cudgel to show that he is not a true conservative. McCain also fell victim to the "Clinton endorsement" recently, when the former president of the United States said the Arizona senator and his wife were personal friends and would run the most civil general election campaign in modern history if they were selected as their parties' nominees.

Pariah endorsements are not limited to the presidential level. In 2006, none of the Republican candidates in Ohio were particularly interested in winning the backing of outgoing Gov. Bob Taft (R), who had been ensnared in a series of scandals. Same goes for the candidates running to replace Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist (R), who became reviled among conservatives there for his backing of a tax increase.

Agree or disagree? Have an endorsement hierarchy of your own? The comments section is open for business. We'll try to update our hierarchy from time to time when and if new categories emerge.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 28, 2008; 12:37 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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