The Risks of Endorsements for Obama and McCain: For Every Oprah, There's a Farrakhan

When celebrities back candidates, their support often backfires. But there are always exceptions.

Oprah Winfrey gives a thumbs up during a rally for Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Oprah Winfrey gives a thumbs up for Obama at a rally in Iowa.

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Do endorsements matter in presidential contests? There's plenty of evidence that they don't—at least not how they're intended. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that, of a dozen celebrities and public figures, all but two would scare off more voters than they'd attract with a candidate endorsement.

And this year's race has seen its share of unwelcome endorsements. Barack Obama ate up valuable time in the final primary debate rejecting an unsolicited endorsement from controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. John McCain spent weeks defending endorsements from Christian Zionist leader John Hagee and Ohio Rev. Rod Parsley, who had made inflammatory statements about Catholicism and Islam. In May, he finally rejected their support.

Still, those ordeals probably didn't scare too many voters off. Endorsements have always been less about swaying voters one way or another than about creating buzz among potential supporters and enthusiasm among the converted. "They generate free media attention, fundraising, and get people talking about the endorsements to their friends," says SUNY—Albany communications Prof. Kelli Lammie, who has studied the effects of celebrity endorsements.

That's what happened with Oprah Winfrey's Obama endorsement in May 2007. A Pew poll found that 74 percent of Americans had heard about it and that a quarter of Americans had heard more about Obama than any other candidate in the weeks that followed. "She really helped boost Obama's visibility," says Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center. "This was at a time when Hillary Clinton was the dominant figure in the race."

Winfrey's backing was all the more valuable because she'd not been active in partisan politics until then. It's the same reason evangelical broadcaster and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson's 2004 endorsement of President Bush, his first plug for a presidential contender, was so effective. Four years later, Dobson's advocacy for McCain, stopping short of a full endorsement, most likely carries less weight because Dobson is now seen as a GOP activist.

McCain's rejection of Hagee and Parsley, meanwhile, discouraged the very activists whom the endorsements were meant to mobilize. "That didn't go over well with evangelicals," says Mathew Staver, dean of Liberty University Law School. "He threw them under the bus." McCain has capitalized more effectively on a novelty endorsement from onetime Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman.

Get out the vote. It's the endorsements from the usual suspects that often generate the most money and organizational support. Few were surprised when the liberal MoveOn.org backed Obama, but the organization has become one of his top fundraisers and is urging its 4.2 million members to get out the vote for him.

That kind of national infrastructure may help Obama in November, but most endorsements are more valuable during the primaries, "when you're looking to put together small blocs of voters," says Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, a veteran of presidential campaigns. Sen. Ted Kennedy's January endorsement of Obama helped get the Democratic establishment behind the Illinois senator at a time when Clinton and her husband were considered the party's de facto leaders.

Endorsements from celebrities like Winfrey, meanwhile, carry some risk because they reinforce the Democrats' ties to Hollywood, which many Americans consider out of touch. That helps explain why Winfrey transitioned from out-front campaigner to quiet fundraiser.

Indeed, the local level can be the most consequential. A Pew poll last year found that local ministers, priests, and rabbis, along with state governors, were the only kinds of figures whose endorsements could make voters more likely to support a candidate. "We had a very concerted strategy to win the early endorsements of [Bush's] fellow Republican governors from across the country," says Karen Hughes, a top Bush strategist. "They offered credibility."