Monday, October 20, 2008

Powell's Endorsement Doesn't Matter

Newscasters were swooning over the news that Colin Powell was endorsing Barack Obama. Powell served George Bush #41 as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Bush #43 as Secretary of State, so the endorsement was certainly newsworthy. But, it doesn’t make much of a difference at this point.

For all the focus on endorsements, the limited power of surrogacy has been shown again and again in this campaign. When Ted Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama in January, experts predicted Kennedy would be able to deliver the Latino vote in California on Super Tuesday. Hillary Clinton not only won the Latinos in California, she won Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts as well. Hillary Clinton had the early support of such prominent black congressional leaders as John Lewis and Stephanie Tubbs Jones, but they couldn’t deliver the black vote.

There was a time when the endorsement of a labor union really mattered and at the local level, the financial and organizational strength of unions is still important, especially in Democratic primaries. But, the union vote supported Ronald Reagan in 1980, Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers Union the next year, and yet he still won the support of most union households in 1984. Many blue collar workers today are ambivalent about supporting Obama.

Catholic bishops fare no better. For the past four years, no bishop has been more vocal in his opposition to the Democratic Party than Archbishop Raymond Burke, who served in St. Louis from 2004 until this past June when he was appointed to a desk job in Rome. This past weekend, St. Louis produced the largest crowd of the campaign so far, when 100,000 people turned out to cheer on Barack Obama. This beat the record of 84,000 set in Denver, home to the nation’s second most vocal supporter of the GOP, Archbishop Charles Chaput. Ever since Scranton’s Bishop Joseph Martino announced Joe Biden was barred from receiving communion in his diocese, Pennsylvania has been turning bluer and bluer.

There is one group of surrogates who really matter: average people. At this point in a campaign, an undecided voter is more likely to be moved by the enthusiasm of a neighbor or relative than by anything said on “Meet the Press” by Colin Powell or in the Denver Catholic Register by Archbishop Chaput. Which leads us to the really big news of the weekend: Not only did Obama raise more money in one month than any candidate in history, his campaign has received donations from more than three million people. And, you can bet that someone who has opened his or her wallet is not going to be shy about telling friends and relatives how they are voting and why.

Winning Powell’s endorsement gave Obama a good news cycle, putting McCain on the defensive. Powell’s message was also remarkably on point, calling Obama “transformational” and calling out McCain for his selection of the underwhelming Gov. Sarah Palin as a running mate. But, it is the local hairdresser who sent in $10. to the Obama campaign and has a half hour with each of her clients the next two weeks whose endorsement will really help Obama turn out his vote and sway the remaining undecided voters.

Michael Sean Winters

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