Why do endorsements matter?

Because they convey information to low-information voters. Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama, conveys information even to high-information voters: the liberal workhorse of the Senate thinks that Obama would be a better President than Clinton. That takes some of the wind out of her “experience” “competence” “works hard” and “Ready on Day One” sails.

Jonathan Kulick asks a good question: Why should we care about endorsements?

In the abstract, I think there’s a good answer. If you’re a low-information or low-attention voter, endorsements convey valuable information in easily interpretable form. Just because we’re political junkies doesn’t mean that everyone has to be; I’m told that some people have actual lives. And for those who haven’t done the work necessary to form sensible judgments on their own, using the opinion of someone they respect as a signal may well be the most sensible course.

But in the specific case of Ted Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama, there’s actually some information in the endorsement that wasn’t available even to the most news-obsessed among us.

The entire Hillary Clinton campaign has been run on the theme that she will be “ready on Day One” and knows how to work the bureaucracies and the Hill to actually get things done, by contrast with Barack Obama, who may talk purty but doesn’t actually know his a@@ from second base when it comes to changing policy. And yet we have the great Democratic workhorse Senator, who knows how Washington actually operates as well as anyone could, expressing the opinion that Obama would make the better President.

Not only is that an opinion worth pondering, it’s direct evidence. The disaster of the first two years of the Clinton Administration was its failure to convert Democratic Congressional majorities into actual legislation. And one plausible version of the “Obama is inexperienced” idea is that he would make similar mistakes and suffer similar defeats. But Kennedy himself is one of the Hill barons that any President has to work with. His support for Obama now means that, on a wide range of legislation, President Obama would likely have strong support from Senator Kennedy.

And Kennedy knows, not only the landscape, but the candidates. As Brian Beutler points out, both Obama and Clinton have been his juniors on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and Clinton has been his junior on Armed Services. He’s actually seen them doing the work. And anyone who has ever done hiring knows that a letter of recommendation from a supervisor is worth a dozen interviews with the job candidate. When Kennedy says that Obama worked hard and effectively on the immigration bill, that’s an important fact, and one not otherwise available to people outside the Senate.

So I wouldn’t put the Kennedy endorsement in the same category as, say, the Oprah Winfrey endorsement. He knows more than I do. That’s not to say I would give that endorsement full deference, but it ought to count.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com