Commentary: The Dubious Power Of Big Foot

In this stubbornly tied governor’s race, when a political Big Foot comes to town to endorse a candidate, it gives the campaign a jolt of energy, but not much else.

On Thursday, two national political Big Feet jumped into the campaign for governor — former President Bill Clinton for Democrat Martha Coakley, and former Gov. Mitt Romney for the GOP’s Charlie Baker. Yet neither will affect the outcome.

Neither was a surprise, neither provides a constituency that their candidate didn't already have, neither gives their candidate a dose of recognition.

Both will likely help raise some money, and their presence may give the governor’s race a hint of national cachet. But many other factors are more important: voters’ gender, income, race, age, marital status and education; the candidates’ ideology or personal qualities such as strength, trustworthiness, empathy and debate performance; not to mention TV commercials by the candidates and their allies.

The two faces of Mitt. While in New Hampshire, Romney was visible and vocal, eager to Velcro Democratic U.S. Sen. Jean Shaheen to President Obama and to help Scott Brown, who is desperately trying to change the subject from his oh-so-brief residency. Leaving New Hampshire, Romney, a long-time resident of Massachusetts, hid behind closed doors in a Back Bay restaurant to raise funds for Baker.

The most important endorsement is party.  A candidate who wins the nomination and carries the Democratic or Republican banner is sufficient for most voters in any election. One longtime and keen observer of politics told me, “I’ll vote for Coakley because she’s a Democrat but I haven’t a clue as to what she’ll do as governor.” Others may support her because she’s a woman; this isn't just gender politics at work. Voters think female candidates tend to be more honest, less tainted by politics as usual.

The red sock surprise.  Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, whose bloody sock made him a World Series hero, gave Scott Brown an unexpected jolt of energy in his 2010 special election victory for what was then called “the Kennedy seat” in the U.S. Senate. Coakley muffed the whole Schilling deal by wondering if he played for the Yankees! Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy gave Barack Obama a boost in his battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. Because the laying on of hands was unexpected, the support garnered much more attention than ordinary endorsements.

Another surprise came in last year’s Boston mayor’s race. After finishing second to City Councilor John Connolly in last year’s mayoral preliminary, Marty Walsh did some savvy horse-trading and gained powerful momentum by winning the public endorsements of all the minority candidates who had lost in the preliminary; Connolly got "bupkis," a term of art in politics meaning zilch.

Over-endorsed. Sometimes endorsements backfire, as Warren Tolman’s losing campaign for attorney general demonstrated in the Sept. 9 primary. At the tail end of that race, Tolman got endorsed by Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, which only reinforced the notion that he was the candidate of the insiders, a fatal flaw in a Democratic primary handily won by Maura Healey, the outsider. But what’re you gonna do, tell the two most powerful politicians in the state, “No thanks”?

The lower the office the more endorsements matter. In less visible races for, say, state representative or city council, endorsements are useful signposts. While voters don’t like to admit that they are influenced by endorsements (or advertisements), something must affect their decision. They don’t go to candidates’ nights or read up on the campaign. In low-information races, people vote for (or against) the familiar name, or may be swayed by a personal visit, a piece of literature, or a call; they may like “veteran” listed under the name on the ballot, or incumbency. Some, including Yours Truly, may use the address of the candidate, employing a curious GPS logic that someone who lives closer to me must be better than an outlier.

Who needs friends like these? As reported this week on the front page of The Boston Globe, Baker, running as a jobs creator, stood in a tuxedo as he accepted “Outsourcing Excellence Award.” The Coakley campaign, which probably unearthed what the Globe called a “politically awkward award” from the Outsourcing Center, an industry group, undermined his claim of saving jobs as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Curiously, former Attorney General Tom Reilly, an unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2006, voluntarily attacked Coakley for promoting the issue, calling it “nonsense.” Reilly, clearly a big fan of Baker, thus gives the Republican cover if the dicey subject comes up in debates.

Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.

Headshot of Dan Payne

Dan Payne Democratic Political Analyst
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR.



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