The Powell Endorsement: Why No Impact?

It has been three days since the race-changing, mind-altering shocking unprecedented Powell endorsement of Obama’s candidacy, and it is probably worth looking at the extent to which the electoral campaign was turned upside down in its aftermath.  Recall the immediate reaction to Powell’s endorsement:

Mark Halperin called it “one of the most symbolically important moments of the general election,” and said it contributed to Obama’s campaign momentum.

Chris Matthews described it as “Colin Powell, right in the kisser. Barack Obama gets the endorsement of the  year.”

Andrea Mitchell said, “I think this is a very powerful political statement.”

Mike Murphy of Swampland (a Time blog) opined, “…Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama today is a real sledgehammer blow to the already staggering McCain campaign.”

Another blogger, reflecting the sentiments found on many blogging sites, called Powell’s endorsement, “the most important, most profound, more powerfully argued 7 minutes of this campaign.” (See Powell).

Oh, and Middlebury College Political Scientist Matt Dickinson said, “Ignore the media hype. It does nothing to alter the fundamentals driving this race.”

Who is right – Dickinson, or the glitterati of the punditocracy? Let’s look at the polling data. You be the judge.

I’ll break down the pre and post-Powell endorsement data into two categories: daily tracking polls and more intermittent surveys that get bigger press coverage.  In all cases we want to see whether Obama got the expected boost in support due to Powell’s endorsement. We begin with the more sporadic but more highly publicized media polls.

Poll Last Pre-Powell Poll Most Recent Poll Net Gain for Obama

NBC/Wall Street          49-43  Obama   52-42  Obama                 +4

ABC News                  53-42 Obama    53-43 Obama                 -1

Ipsos McClatchy       48-39 Obama        50-42 Obama                -1

CNN                           53-45 Obama     51-46  Obama               -2

Ok, so Obama appears to have gained, on average, absolutely nothing from the Powell endorsement in these polls, but note that they sample voters over three-four days, and some were released on Monday, so at least one of the days of their most recent polling took place before the Powell endorsement.  And in some cases the pre-Powell poll is from a couple of weeks ago. It might be better, then, to look at the most recent daily trackers, which include more data from the post-Powell endorsement period. Surely they show significant gains for Obama! In each case, I compare the last tracking poll from the day before Powell’s endorsement to yesterday’s daily tracking results.

Gallup (Expanded) 51-44 Obama         52-42 Obama                          +3

Rasmussen  50-45 Obama                    50-46 Obama                          -1

Hotline             49-42   Obama             47-41 Obama                          -1

Battleground 49-45 Obama                  48-47  Obama                         -3

TPP                 47.2-39.8 Obama        46.9-40.0 Obama                    -1.3

Zogby              50-42 Obama              52-42 Obama                          +2

Once again, we see that, on average, Obama has gained absolutely nothing in the daily tracking polls since Powell’s endorsement.  Now, it may be that the full significance of that endorsement has yet to kick in.  But as of now it doesn’t appear to have had any impact whatsoever.  Why not?   The answer says much about how political scientists view elections versus the media perspective.

In theory, endorsements might matter under one of two circumstances: One, the person providing the endorsement has the allegiance and exercises authority over a significant portion of potential voters. Think of the Pope. If he endorsed Obama, that could potentially swing a few Catholic voters. Two, the endorsement reveals previously hidden aspects of the candidate’s resume or qualifications for office in a way that causes voters to reevaluate their comparison of the two candidates.

Neither of these hold in Powell’s case.   He doesn’t speak for any group of people, having long ago burned his bridges among conservative Republicans and still mistrusted by many Democrats who remember his case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. In any case, most Republicans and Democrats long ago made up their mind in this election. What about the military – surely Powell carries some clout there? In fact, surveys of those in the military suggest overwhelming support for McCain – Powell is not going change that in appreciable numbers. How about independents? As I noted in my earlier post, this election is about the economy, and Powell’s credentials on this point are not the kind that give him any particular weight on this issue. Most independents are looking to see what the candidates can do about the mortgage and banking crisis, jobs and unemployment – not the “Powell doctrine”. Those that are weighting national security issues more heavily are disproportionately for McCain. Nothing Powell can say will likely convince them that Obama is better prepared to make military decisions than McCain.  Indeed, they realize that on national security issues Powell is closer to McCain than Obama, so his endorsement isn’t likely to win over many independents on this issue either.  In short, when we step back from the media hype, and think this through carefully, we shouldn’t expect Powell’s endorsement to matter.  And it hasn’t.

Don’t misunderstand. Powell’s endorsement was an important news story from the perspective of pundits and journalists.  It was news! But from a political science perspective, it was not substantively very important because it doesn’t affect how people decide to vote.  The difference says much about how the two look at campaigns and elections.

At this point, with less than 20 days to go, the dwindling numbers of undecided voters are paying almost no attention to who wins the daily news narrative, and instead are thinking of the race in terms of more fundamental issues that I have harped on again and again. From this perspective, Powell’s endorsement was so much media background chatter, to be stored as one more element in the glut of election-related information that now saturates the airwaves.  It made for interesting water cooler chatter, but not much else.  If you are an Obama supporter, it confirmed your support. If you are a McCain backer, it is easily dismissed. And if you are undecided, Powell’s endorsement will not have much relevance to you.

But didn’t McCain “lose” the media cycle?  Perhaps – it depends on what the displaced storyline was likely to be: Obama’s fundraising advantage?  His overwhelming lead in the polls?  Chuck Todd pointing out once more why the Electoral College map favors Obama?  More importantly, however, voters are not looking at the race in terms of who wins or loses the daily news cycle, and McCain’s fortunes aren’t affected by this by to nearly the degree that journalists think they are.

It is perfectly understandably why pundits, who live day-to-day from news cycle to news cycle, and journalists, who need to file a story every 24-hours, would hype the Powell endorsement. It was news!  But the public operates on a different time scale when it comes to the election.  In the end, we should be pleased that as a collective, voters’ decisions are not skewed by the endorsement of a single individual.  I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: voters are quite rational when it comes to elections.  Perhaps the most telling comment I read in the post-Powell lovefest was by a media commentator who gushed, “I can’t remember an endorsement in the history of political campaigns that had this much impact.”  Think about that for a moment.   Can you remember ANY political endorsement that had any positive impact in a presidential election?  Any at all?

It would be foolhardy, media hype notwithstanding, to think voters could be moved to vote for a candidate simply because one person told them to do so. Indeed, we ought to be thankful that Powell’s endorsement has had so little impact – that voters are not that fickle or easily swayed.

(My apologies for those of you who remember my earlier screed on this topic when Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy endorsed Obama, and Clinton proceeded to crush Obama in the Massachusetts primary.   But the media hype after Powell’s endorsement was easy pickings.)

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