In the fall of 2001, the New York Times endorsed Democrat Mark Green for mayor, saying he has "demonstrated a deep understanding of the issues, a sensible approach to public policy, and the soul of a fighter." Unions representing teachers, health care workers and civil servants eventually lined up behind Green's candidacy, as did 50 members of the State Assembly, Newsday and Crain's. And to cap it off just a few days before the election, former President Bill Clinton stumped across Harlem with Green at his side.
But on Election Day, none of that mattered. Neither did Green's lengthy political experience or the overwhelming political advantage Democrats have in the city. Republican Michael Bloomberg won anyway - due largely, most experts agree, to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's endorsement. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, Giuliani had turned "from a moderately popular mayor into a demigod," Mark Mellman, a polling consultant for Green, said after the election. "That demigod status enabled him to be effective in a wonderful endorsement commercial," which Bloomberg had the money to air over and over and over again.
Four years later, candidates seeking endorsements can learn a number of lessons from the 2001 campaign. Some endorsements matter more than others; a campaign's use of an endorsement can be as important as the endorsement itself; the endorsements you do not get may matter as much as the ones you do.
But, despite that, candidates this year are once again courting newspaper editorial boards, issue groups, union leaders and politicians, all in the hopes of gaining a nod they can trumpet on flyers, in ads and on the steps of City Hall. Winning the endorsement can take time and energy - and force candidates into deals that go against their own best judgment, or against the best interests of the city, and that voters might not know about.
There is ample evidence that most endorsements do not matter at all.
Candidates pursue them anyway, just in case. Some bring press coverage, which candidates always welcome. And this year, with turnout likely to be small, they reason, who knows what will sway the few votes that could make a difference?
Among the mayoral candidates this year, Bloomberg and Democrats Fernando Ferrer and Gifford Miller lead in endorsements. On their Web sites, both the Democrats have long lists of endorsements, mostly from politicians largely unknown outside their immediate communities. Most are specifically for the Democratic primary on September 13th. If none of the Democratic candidates win 40 percent of the vote, and a runoff is secheduled for September 27th, the endorsers may change sides, as they may do once again for the General Election in November.
Newspapers offer endorsements -- not just the major English-language metropolitan dailies, but a wide range of the hundreds of community and ethnic newspapers in the city, and not just for mayor but other citywide and borough offices, City Council and judgeship races as well.
Ferrer snatched the gold ring of a New York Times endorsement in the Democratic primary over Labor Day weekend, though it was hardly a ringing one, emphasizing less what was positive about him than what was negative about his Democratic rivals: "If we're going to make a leap of faith, we prefer to do it with Mr. Ferrer."
Nationally, many experts dismiss the value of editorial endorsements. "Editorial endorsements are dinosaurs. The vast majority of the public don't read editorials," Larry Sabato, head of the university of Virginia's Center for Politics, told a reporter during the 2004 presidential race (in which, by the way, John Kerry got more endorsements than George W. Bush).
On a local level, said John Mollenkopf, professor of political science at the CUNY Graduate Center, "newspaper editorials mostly help when they confirm what someone is thinking of doing anyway."
An exception may be the New York Times, in races "in affluent, Times-reading neighborhoods," as the New York Observer put it recently in an article on the power of the Times's endorsements, which singled out a Times editorial board member, Carolyn Curiel, who leads the board’s subcommittee on local politics, and whose "blessing can mean the difference between winning and losing local elections, especially in Manhattan." When the Times endorsed Scott Stringer for Manhattan borough president, Ben Smith of the Observer wrote: "The dozen or so candidates will all be gunning for Stringer now, but they've got a tough job. This race is the classic case of New York Times power: it's too small a job for ordinary people to pay much attention, but too big an electorate for a candidate to win based on energy, shaken hands, and a personal network alone." The Times endorsement of Leslie Crocker Snyder, some say, will change the dynamic in her challenge of longtime Manhattan incumbent district attorney Robert Morgenthau.
And on Staten Island, the Advance's endorsements carry great weight, according to Richard Flanagan, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island.
CIVIC GROUPS AND OTHER ORGANIZATIONS
Groups representing various causes and positions also look at candidates' positions on issues of concern to that group — be it good government, gay rights, abortion rights or the environment. Some of these groups carefully research the candidates, ask them to fill out questionnaires, interview them. Others take a less methodical approach.
Bloomberg has fared well with these organizations this year, garnering endorsements from groups that back causes generally associated with Democrats, such as abortion rights. Miller has picked up several such endorsements. The community group ACORN endorsed Ferrer. Fields has won support from a few women's groups, but also received the "preference" of Citizens Union, the good government group affiliated with Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.
Generally, the backing of issue groups tends chiefly to underscore - for better or worse - the candidates' stand on a particular set of issues. In a study (.pdf) of endorsements in gubernatorial elections in six states (not including New York), Rachael Cobb, a political scientist at MIT, found, "Groups often demand commitments from candidates in exchange for an endorsement."
For decades, nationally and locally, unions provided key support for Democratic candidates. But this year, Bloomberg, a billionaire and nominal Republican who in the past has had his house picketed by some city workers, has racked up a number of union endorsements, including that of District Council 37, the largest union representing city employees. According to the National Journal's "Hotline," this was the first time the union, which backed Ferrer four years ago, ever made a general election endorsement before the primary. Bloomberg aides told reporters the union imprimatur could help deflect accusations that Bloomberg is out of touch with working New Yorkers. Perhaps more importantly it will deprive Ferrer - or any other Democrat — of ground troops to get out the vote on Election Day.
Other unions, including a number of those representing construction workers, have joined District Council 37 in endorsing the mayor. A smattering of unions have gone to each of the Democrats, except for Fields.
The United Federation of Teachers has sat out the race so far. Some cynics attribute this to the fact that the teachers, who have been working without a contract, hope to win a new agreement with the city before the election. Others say that after a losing streak in the 2001 election -- when the union backed unsuccessful candidates in the primary, runoff and general elections -- it makes sense for it to lie low. The Working Families Party, which has ties to many unions, also has not yet endorsed.
While the Working Families Party seems to have some clout, almost everyone agrees that traditional union backing matters less than it once did. "Union endorsements have a significant impact on what members do, [but] less on their families and others," said Mollenkopf.
And union endorsements, like others, can have a price. In 2002, Republican Governor George Pataki won the endorsement of District 1199, the large and powerful union representing health-care workers. At the same time, Pataki gave the health-care workers a raise, an increase that many of his critics said the state could not afford.
For much of the spring and into the summer, politicians, many fairly obscure, flocked to the steps of City Hall or issued press releases announcing their support for a candidate in the mayor's race - most for Miller or Ferrer.
Few seemed likely to have much of an impact, although people who follow such things sought to find significance in some. Would, for example, the endorsements of a few Bronx politicians for Anthony Weiner, including U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, indicate a major shift of support to Weiner in Ferrer's home borough of the Bronx?
And a couple intrigued reporters, if not voters, by running counter to type. For instance, look at former U.S. Representative Geraldine Ferraro's support for Ferrer. Although Joseph Mercurio, then a consultant to the Fields campaign, dismissed Ferraro's importance -- "I had to spend a few minutes remembering who she was," he told the Times -- it did not escape notice that the first woman to run on a major party's presidential ticket had chosen to endorse a man, rather than the person seeking to become New York's first woman mayor.
An endorsement by an individual often does more for the endorser than the endorsee. This may explain why so many endorsement statements seem to be more about the person making the endorsement than the one receiving it.
Take, for example, U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley's endorsement of Ferrer. "I've known Freddy Ferrer for 20 years, during which we fought side by side on issues, from health care to housing, issues that matter to New Yorkers," Crowley said. "I work every day in Washington fighting the Republican agenda of Bush, Pataki, and Bloomberg, fighting for New Yorkers' security, access to health care, and to make New York accessible and livable for average New Yorkers, not just the rich. I know that Freddy is the only candidate who really engages with these issues."
Of course, endorsements can backfire for endorsers too. Democrats in the city have been trying to use Bloomberg's endorsement of President George W. Bush against the mayor.
Sometimes endorsements can reflect one politician's honest enthusiasm for a colleague. But often they result from horse-trading: Back me, and I'll back you, give you a job in my administration or push your favorite cause.
Many political insiders in Brooklyn were intrigued by Councilmember David Yassky's endorsement of State Senator John Sampson for Brooklyn district attorney. While Yassky is often viewed as a reformer, Sampson has the unofficial support of indicted Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Clarence Norman, a nemesis of most reformers. On the other hand Yassky, who is white, is mulling a run for Congress in a largely black district and could profit from an affiliation with a black politician like Sampson.
"If Yassky endorsed Sampson, whether Sampson wins or loses, one would think Yassky would have some claim on Sampson's endorsement," Baruch College Professor Douglas Muzzio told the Daily News. "Clearly, there's a quid pro quo element to this."
A 2003 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (in pdf format) people said endorsements had little effect on their vote. Asked whether they would be swayed by the endorsement of specific individuals, most people said no. In many cases, an endorsement could harm a candidate just as easily as help him. For example, three percent of those responding said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate backed by Tonight Show host Jay Leno, while 10 percent said Leno's endorsement would make them less likely to vote for a candidate. Bill Clinton had the biggest positive effect of any individual - 19 percent - but the exact same percentage said they would be deterred from voting for a candidate by Clinton's backing.
In New York, Reverend Al Sharpton may have a similar effect. The 2001 election offers a convoluted case study of the complications Sharpton poses. As Ferrer and Green eagerly sought his support Sharpton remained "maddeningly neutral", inviting Green and Ferrer to vie for his support. Shortly before the primary, Sharpton finally endorsed Ferrer, prompting Ferrer partisans to announce a black-Latino coalition that, they said, would bring the Bronx borough president to victory.
Others said the opposite would be true. "In welcoming a warm endorsement from the Rev. Al Sharpton, the controversial black leader, Mr. Ferrer may have scared away the vast bulk of Jewish voters who were once a core element in any big-city liberal coalition," Rachel Donadio wrote in the Forward.
After Ferrer lost to Green in a runoff election marked by attempts by some Green supporters to tag Ferrer as a racially divisive politician, Sharpton made his displeasure with Green known and sat out the general election. Some say this contributed to Bloomberg's narrow victory in November.
For better or worse, Sharpton has not endorsed anyone so far this year, although when the primary was less than two weeks away, the New York Times reported that he and Dennis Rivera, president of the District 1199 union, were weighing a joint endorsement of Ferrer.
But most endorsements do not involve anybody with such potential influence. They come from members of the state legislature, district leaders or council members, and their value is questionable. "Most people don't care very much about which City Council members are going to back Gifford Miller or whoever," Mollenkopf told the New York Observer.
Endorsements can "serve as proxies for someone's character," Flanagan said, noting they can make a difference, particularly in races where turnout is small.
Candidates also seek out celebrity endorsements, although it is unclear whether Madonna's support for Wesley Clarke won the former general any votes in the 2004 presidential race. But celebrities can help with fundraising. John Kerry capitalized on his support from Bruce Springsteen and other singers to have them hold concerts raising money for his campaign. And locally, Manhattan borough president candidate Brian Ellner has had prominent people in the fashion industry, including Diane von Furstenberg, raise funds for his campaign.
But every once in a while, someone comes around whose endorsement unquestionably makes a difference. Giuliani in 2001 was one. And, according to Flanagan, in 1961 when Manhattan liberals saw incumbent Mayor Robert Wagner as too close to the Tammany Hall Democratic machine, he was saved with the endorsement of former Senator Herbert Lehman.
"That really made the difference for Wagner," Flanagan said. "Lehman was seen as having this connection with the New Deal" and so the liberals forgave Wagner his transgressions and elected him to a third term.
But, said Flanagan, nothing similar is likely to happen this time around. "There is, he said, "no bigger-than-life political personality to point a finger and make someone anointed."