The Contenders: Campaign Endorsements That Actually Mattered

The Contenders: Campaign Endorsements That Actually Mattered

By Sean Braswell


Because big-name shoutouts can make a difference, sometimes in unexpected ways.

By Sean Braswell

Learn more about about the presidential candidacies of Barack Obama, Howard Dean, John McCain and George W. Bush by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY airing every Tuesday this fall at 8 p.m. EST on PBS, that celebrates the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth.

Not all big-name endorsements are created equal when it comes to U.S. presidential campaigns. Remember when Adam Sandler supported Rudy Giuliani? Precisely. Some endorsements can lead to rather awkward pairings (we’re looking at you, Chris Christie), while others can help touch up a candidate’s image around the edges — see Chuck Norris with Mike Huckabee or Bruce Springsteen with John Kerry — but not much more. Some endorsements can spark a YouTube sensation, only to fizzle fast, as when TMZ caught John Mayer preaching the gospel according to Ron Paul (“Read the Constitution’s what I’m saying”).

And as the amply endorsed yet failed candidacies of Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush this election show, racking up a volume of endorsements is hardly a guarantee of success. Still, as OZY illustrates in The Contenders: 16 for ’16, airing every Tuesday this fall at 8 p.m. EST on PBS, certain key individual endorsements can help make a difference (we’ll let the political scientists debate how much), and so it’s worth looking back at how some big-name presidential endorsements have helped alter the landscape of an election.

The era of celebrity endorsements began in the 1920 election, when Hollywood artists such as Al Jolson, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford united to throw their weight behind Republican Warren G. Harding and his promise to return America to “normalcy.” Harding won in a landslide, but is regarded as one of the worst presidents in history. The successful candidacies of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were also aided by a roster of famous friends, but these were really group efforts. Our list of high-impact individual endorsements starts when one megawatt television star threw her spotlight on a relatively unknown candidate, and future president.

The “O Effect” (Obama and Oprah, 2008)

In his 2008 bid, the one-term Illinois senator received a number of key endorsements that helped legitimize his candidacy, from Democratic Party lion Ted Kennedy to former Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell. But the single most important endorsement, sometimes referred to as the “O Effect,” came from Oprah Winfrey, just three months after Barack Obama announced his candidacy in February 2007. “Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Obama was huge in 2008,” says David J. Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University. And just as the mega-celebrity had helped boost sales of books and other products by a hundredfold, her early seal of approval on Obama, says Jackson, raised millions of dollars and has been shown to be directly responsible (according to one study) for more than a million votes in the primaries.

Getting Into Bed With Dick Nixon (Chamberlain and Nixon, 1968)

The “O Effect” is a limited phenomenon, and the vast majority of celebrity endorsements tend to have little influence, but the best can make some voters pay more attention to a particular candidate. Republican nominee Richard Nixon benefited from a few key African-American endorsements in 1968, most notably basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain. The 7-footer took time off the court and from his other, ahem, passions, to help Nixon’s campaign reach out to the Black community and share the candidate’s “Black capitalism” pitch. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson owed much of his victory margin over GOP challenger Barry Goldwater to a large African-American turnout — just 6 percent of non-white voters opted for Goldwater. Thanks in part to Chamberlain, Nixon was able to double that figure just four years later.

Awkward Is Better Than Never (McCain and Bush, 2000)

Shutterstock 107740301

George W. Bush speaking at a Burbank, California, campaign rally in 2000.

Source Shutterstock

After Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s ugly victory over Arizona Sen. John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary, there was plenty of bad blood between the two candidates. But after exiting the race and withholding his endorsement of Bush for weeks, McCain finally joined the presumptive GOP nominee at a press conference to deliver a lackluster endorsement; in fact, he did not actually use the word “endorse” until pressed by reporters to clarify, after which he spouted “I endorse Gov. Bush” six times in a row. An awkward moment, but the effort helped unify the Republican Party behind Bush and dismiss any worries that McCain, a rock star among independents and young people, would mount a third-party bid. If McCain hadn’t fallen in line, the result would almost certainly have been President Al Gore.

When a Backing Backfires (Gore and Dean, 2004)

Speaking of Al Gore, after forgoing a rematch with Bush, the former vice president threw his weight (in the Democratic Party) behind the insurgent candidacy of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in 2004. Dean had ridden a wave of anti-establishment enthusiasm and digital fundraising to early prominence in 2003, but it was Gore’s insider endorsement (“Mr. Inside embraces Mr. Outside” read one headline) that appeared to give Dean a boost in stature within the party. What it really gave Dean, however, was a target on his back — prompting Kerry, John Edwards and Dick Gephardt to stop attacking one another and coordinate their fire on Dean, who would finish third in the Iowa caucuses just a month later.

Not exactly the sort of impact Dean was looking for, but an important lesson for political outsiders contemplating an insider stamp of approval. And unless her name is Oprah, chances are an endorser is unlikely to be the game-changer a candidate desires.