Monday, January 7, 2013

Editorial Content: Endorsing Endorsements

Alright, let's see if I can't get this damnable post finally done in a manner I find acceptable for posting. This is an issue I've struggled with for awhile, if only because I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to say about endorsements.

We're all familiar with them, a person with some name recognition steps forward and says so and so is the best fit for political job at hand. We've seen it on leadership levels, but we've also seen it during nomination contests and other electoral contests, so for one reason or another endorsements continue to endure. As stated, I had some trouble with this post, namely regarding around what I wanted to say about endorsements.

I wasn't sure if I should be so flippant as to dismiss endorsements entirely; or whether there was a middle path that assigned greater weight to some endorsements over others...Either way, I think there are some things to say about endorsements, and the endorsement process, and that's hopefully what we'll get across with this post.

Firstly, let's get the semantics out of the way and simply talk about the endorsement itself. Much like a reference at the end of a resume, an endorsement is a personal statement of belief from one person regarding the capabilities and faith placed in a certain political candidate. Due to the nature of endorsements, unlike references, these people need not have worked together or even know each other on a level close enough to call one another friend; but, they are still impressive to receive throughout the course of a campaign.

For the most part, endorsements tend to come from former politicians of the same political stripes; even unsuccessful candidates can still carry a good amount of recognition and are often endorsers. Outside of that, you have institutional endorsements that come from organizations such as unions, or other non-governmental organizations (business, charities, etc [at least ones who inflict no harm from showing political intention]). 

Each endorsement carries it own weight, and whatever faith you put into it is dependent completely on the person who is interpreting the endorsement. For example, an endorsement from defeated candidate may create some name recognition buzz, but one does have to wonder how effective the endorsement of a defeated candidate (regardless of popularity) can be.

I fear that was flippant, so I want to clarify. I'm not saying that endorsements from defeated candidates mean nothing, rather I am saying that all endorsements have a level of "gravitas" that one can try and glean from the endorsement. What I am trying to say, is that endorsements by themselves are all fine and good; but in order to fully ascertain what sort of support an endorsement brings to a campaign, you have to look at the person/organization doing the endorsing.

Let's try and shape this into some context.

One of the first jobs a new leader has to do once elected is gain the support of his/her caucus. Now, obviously, the two sitting MLAs have a distinct advantage here over their two non-sitting opponents. Cam Broten, with himself included, has the support of 4 current NDP MLAs; while Trent Wotherspoon has the support of 2, with himself included.

The remaining 3 NDP MLAs, seem unlikely to come out in favour of anyone before the campaign is over. John Nilson, the interim leader, will certainly remain neutral; while David Forbes has also been fairly neutral in the campaign, as noted by the fact that he has made financial contributions of the same amount to all four campaigns. The only wild card is Buckley Belanger, who to the best of my knowledge, has not made any allusions to remaining neutral nor has he indicated which camp he is leaning towards either.

From this perspective, the two sitting MLAs have an inside track at being able to work with and keep caucus under control due to the levels of support they already enjoy from within the caucus. That is not to say that Ryan Meili  or Erin Weir would be incapable of working with the caucus, but rather it is more of a note that they will be working from the ground up to build a relationship that Cam and Trent already enjoy with their fellow caucus members.

As such, receiving endorsements from caucus members comes across as quite important. However, I would not say that receiving no endorsements from a sitting member reflects poorly on a campaign. I would add this because there is a level of partnership that occurs in caucus, which in turn makes it seem more likely that a caucus member would support one of their own as opposed to an outsider candidate. While that doesn't diminish the endorsement, I think it adds some needed perspective to the importance of an endorsement from within caucus.

So, to summarize that point, an endorsement from a caucus member adds the appearance of unity and the support of elected members being a certain candidate they would feel comfortable working with. At the same time, however, it is worth noting that out of a sense of loyalty and friendship caucus members might not reach out across the spectrum to a candidate who is not currently a caucus member.

This campaign has also seen a fair amount of out-of-province endorsements come in; and while it is heartening to see other provincial MLAs or out of province unions or professionals support a candidate, it probably does not generate the type of impact that one would hope. Unless said endorsers have extensive contacts within the province, to provide volunteer support and the like, it seems more of an effort in 'star marquee-ing' (a term I'll use here to mean putting a popular/familiar name into the mix for the sake of people just recognizing the name alone)... I do swear I'm not trying to diminish any endorsements that have come out during this campaign, but I am just trying to do my best to categorize them and in turn reflect on which endorsements will actually generate support levels.

Though I would note that an endorsement from a caucus member comes with some perks; primarily the perk of having an elected member and the political machine in their constituency that can translate into real supporters.

Sitting MLAs have won elections, and that is done through sheer hard work and an able volunteer force. Picking up an endorsement from caucus will likely avail a leadership candidate to these volunteers and can translate into active supporters. At the same time, however, I would caution that picking up an MLA's endorsement does not guarantee that their entire constituency that votes NDP will lock in step with their MLA and support a single candidate.

Which segues nicely to the next type of endorsement I want to talk about: The institutional endorsement. For the most part, in an NDP leadership race, refers to endorsements that come from union and labour organizations.

To the best of my knowledge, all of the current candidates have received some kind of assistance or endorsement from a union. Much like the example noted above, the problem with an endorsement from a union is that it is not a clear measure of support. While a union may have a few thousand members, it is those involved in the union leadership structure that endorse a candidate on behalf of the union. And while there may be encouragement for union members to support that specific candidate, there is still room for disagreement between the final choice of candidate.

But again, these kinds of endorsements come with the perk of added volunteer power and organization.

If anything, I think these two examples of endorsement effectively end in a wash. While it might generate some good news releases and add volunteer support and organization to a campaign, it doesn't necessarily translate directly into support.

Which brings me to the last two remaining types of endorsements.

The third type is the personal endorsement. This campaign has been pretty active in targeting single sourced endorsements from every day people; with all the campaigns doing fairly well in securing the endorsement of your average citizen. To a degree, these types of endorsements tend to be the more interesting ones to pay attention to.

I say that because these tend to come from the grassroots, and come from people who are active and dedicated within their communities as well as the party. These are the kind of people who are able to not just find volunteers, but who host functions, organize events, and do a fantastic job in fundraising for a campaign. These are the sort of 'bread and butter' endorsements that really do an accurate job in highlighting some degree of support and momentum for a campaign.

The last type of endorsement I want to talk about slightly contradicts a bit we've talked about prior...I referred to how out-of-province endorsements can come across simply as 'name dropping', which to a degree is what all endorsements essentially boil down to, but there is a certain class of endorsement which sort of rises above this fray and actually shows a large deal of support. I refer to endorsements from former party leaders, in both actually leading the party and those who were popular ministers and caucus members.

There are some former politicians who will always be remembered fondly within their past constituency; I know Clay Serby, for example in my hometown of Yorkton, is always spoken of with high regard and is the kind of person whose word carries a fair amount of weight. There are former politicians throughout Saskatchewan who exist in a similar fashion, and although they may be out of politics they still have the ability to inspire their a large amount of their community towards a single candidate.

The same can be said for former Premiers and Party Leaders. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, if we woke up tomorrow and Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert had both endorsed the same candidate, there would be a sense of finality to the entire leadership race. These were men who left their own unique stamp on the Saskatchewan NDP brand and who left office well regarded; these are both the sort of endorsements that could really be called 'game changers'.

The main reason why former Premiers and leaders have such sway is because of the respect that exists for them within the party. An undecided member who doesn't know which candidate to support, could simply support a candidate who received a glowing endorsement from a previous leader. And while it may not be the deciding factor for all undecided members, it certainly would sway a large number of them into a single camp.

So, how do we sum this up and what do we take away from this?

I think we can take away two key things from the endorsements that we've seen thus far in this leadership race.

Firstly, the number of endorsements is less important than the quality of the endorsements. While it might look good on paper to be the candidate with the most endorsements across the board, it doesn't necessarily guarantee the ability to translate those endorsements into solid support. While it looks good to have the most MLAs or former MLAs on board, if they can't translate their personal endorsement into support from their own constituencies, the endorsement really hasn't made that much of an impact.

Secondly, when all is said and done, there are only a handful of endorsements that truly can influence the outcome of the race. We've heard numerous politicians say that the only poll that matters is the one on election day, and that is true in a leadership race as well. Having the most personal endorsements might not be front page news, but having that groundswell of grassroots support can only be a good thing.

Furthermore, outside of personal endorsements, the endorsements of truly 'revered' (for lack of a better word) party members and leaders ultimately would do more than a handful of endorsements from other less known members. As I said above, if Roy Romanow or Lorne Calvert suddenly endorsed someone the race would change dramatically.

Ultimately, I think we can say that what needs to be done is to lessen our focus on endorsements and treat them like what they are: References. The majority of endorsements are only going to stand on their own as a personal belief in the character and vision of the candidate being endorsed, rather than something we can use to try and determine support levels. There are rare occasions when this is no longer true, but for the most part endorsements simply serve as the references the people need to determine which candidate is best for the job. 

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