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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Campaign Endorsements: Behind the Curtain

Uploaded: Nov 22, 2014
The ordinary voter's perception of endorsements is very different from what is seen from inside a campaign, as evidenced by the surprise voiced by those new to the process. The focus of this blog entry is to encourage a bit more transparency by both the candidates (in future elections) and by the endorsers. The larger goal is to encourage people to think about how endorsements might be made more useful to voters.

I see a two-fold approach. First, for organizations that make endorsements, to get their members to ask if they are satisfied with their organization's process, and then push to change it (waiting until the next campaign has started will be too late). Second, if potential voters are more aware of what goes on, then that will create an incentive for organizations to be more forthcoming to protect the impact (credibility?) of their endorsements.

There is a wide-range of visibility into the endorsement process. At the high-end is the Palo Alto Weekly (I don't work for them, but blog here): Videos of their candidate interviews are available on the Web and they give a reasonably detailed explanation of their choices in an editorial. At the low-end is DAWN (Democratic Activists for Women Now) which explicitly promises candidates to keep their responses confidential.

The recent campaign provided an example of the problems with poor transparency. One candidate seeking the endorsement of the Democratic Party of Santa Clara County was eliminated from consideration based upon a false claim by a supporter of an opposing candidate (Claim: that he had endorsed a Republican). When supporters of the eliminated candidate learned of this "mistake", they attempted to get the situation remedied, but were denied.

There is a widespread sense that the Palo Alto Weekly is the most important endorsement in local elections, and estimates are that it is worth at least 500 votes.(foot#1)

The endorsements of the other local newspapers have a much poorer correlation with successful candidates.

----Organizational Endorsements----
Organizations making endorsements typically have the candidate fill out a written questionnaire which is then followed by an in-person interview, but some do only one or the other. When someone new to the process, either a candidate or campaign staffer, first sees the questionnaires the most common reaction is surprise at how little most of the questions have to do with the office the candidate is running for. A certain amount of this is acceptable and to be expected because officeholders are opinion leaders even though they won't being voting on the issues addressed by the questions. Part of the organization's motivation can be that those candidates might seek higher office where those issues are relevant. However, various questionnaires go so far in this direction that various candidates regard them as abusive (more below), but submit in hope of getting the endorsement. I have made a collection of questionnaires from the recent City Council contest available for the curious.

Another surprise in various questionnaires is the absence of questions about issues that one would expect. For example, a person identifying himself as a representative of the local chapter of the Sierra Club is a frequent advocate at City meetings for "road diets", that is, removing vehicle lanes on major arteries such as Alma. Yet the questionnaire doesn't ask for a position on this.

The next surprise for people new to the process are the questions about the candidate's likelihood of winning the election. The first reaction is to view that as cynical, but that is wrong. Most organizations want to avoid endorsing candidates who are going to lose: An important measure of the value of their endorsement is their winning percentage. Organizations may also apply a cost-benefit analysis to their choice. For example, labor unions (and other organizations) are often willing to provide significant resources to candidates, not just fund-raising but turning out their members to support activities such as delivering candidate literature to doorsteps. They see this investment/expenditure as making it more likely that the candidate they favor gets elected. A few organizations take the opposite approach: They invest nothing beyond the endorsement in promoting the candidates, and maximize their expected return-on-investment by endorsing the candidates most likely to win, regardless of their positions, hoping for future consideration for their endorsement.

Most organizations tend to fall between the extremes, but this is largely invisible to those outside the process. Participants in the selection process who are disgruntled enough to talk are too rare, and their accounts need to be treated skeptically.

----Elected Officials----
As with organizations, officials have a strong incentive to endorse those who they expect will win. They also have a strong incentive to endorse those who have supported them. Since incumbents typically fit both these criteria, you should expect to see them being endorsed. The absence of an endorsement for an incumbent is usually more telling than its presence.

Similarly, one should not be surprised to see endorsements at 2 degrees of separation (endorsing candidates supported by their significant supporters).

And sometimes the endorsement is not based on past support, but on expectation of future support, for example, who the Council candidate would vote for as the next Mayor and Vice Mayor.

Recognize that officials typically have very different experiences with the candidates than the ordinary voter. They tend to interact in small group meetings, and only on a small fraction of the issues. And those issues may not be the big issues in the election. Consequently, they make endorsement decisions based on very different criteria than voters.

Voters who get a chance to ask the officials about their endorsement decisions are often surprised that what the official bears no resemblance to what appears in their blurb in the candidate's ads. A competent campaign staff will provide the endorser with a suggested blurb?this is a basic marketing practice of trying to have a consistent message. Some officials approve the blurb as is; some edit it, sometimes heavily; some ignore it and write their own.

The problem for the typical voter is that they don't have the information or access needed to distinguish between these many cases, and may wind up making false assumptions about the endorsements. Unfortunately, I don't know of any example of an electorate getting more transparency into these endorsements.

Much of the above also applies to activists and other advocates. One common problem is that the identification of these individuals, both in the public mind and by titles in the list of endorsers, is often much broader than the very narrow basis for the endorsement. For example, there were individuals identified as "environmentalists" or "sustainability advocates" whose endorsements were reportedly based largely, if not entirely, upon unconditional support for an anaerobic digester (composter) in the Baylands. No endorsement if the candidate said that it needed to be economically viable and have a smaller carbon footprint than the alternatives. Also, for reasons unknown to me, it was apparently unacceptable to be willing to consider locating such a facility in place of the current incinerator rather than in the Baylands.

Unfortunately, transparency in these endorsements is going to be hard to come by. If the endorsement of the activist is important enough to be sought, a candidate is unlikely to risk antagonizing that person by revealing the difference between the public perception and the actual basis for endorsement.

Might candidates encourage endorsers more strongly to include an explanation that would be posted on the candidates website? I don't think this would help. First, the endorsers tend to write broad, vague, overly generalized statements and these provide little information for voters trying to differentiate candidates (although they can provide affirmations to voters seeking to validate their choices). Second, few voters are likely to plow through such statements: My observation is that for most voters who use such endorsements they look at a simple list of names for the overall impression.

----Solicited endorsements----
One of the important aspects that is invisible in the list of endorsements is which of those came naturally and which were solicited. The former come from people and groups based on their experience working with, and knowledge of, the candidate. The latter often involve multi-hour one-on-one "interviews" with the candidate, which can be more about "educating" (euphemism for lobbying) the candidate than about learning the candidate's positions and skills. It is not that uncommon for certain prominent individuals to demand multiple, multi-hour "interviews" with a candidate in order to get an endorsement.

This can be useful training for someone new to electoral politics: learning to say No to special interests making excessive demands, both for face-time and for commitments on issues. Unfortunately, although it is a skill that is important for an officeholder, it can result in the candidate getting fewer of these endorsements. I don't see this changing: "Solicitation" is too deeply embedded in politics.

----Abusive Questionnaires----
In some years, candidates are inundated with questionnaires. The ones I saw this year (collection) are the fewest I can remember. Some of the questions are very reasonable and can help the candidate be better prepared.(foot#2)

However, many of the questions are irrelevant to the office being sought, either the issue itself or the degree of knowledge required. For example, one questionnaire (Sierra Club/LCV #16) asks the candidate's position related to technical details of managing an active landfill (Palo Alto no longer has one). Many of the candidates whose campaigns I have worked on over the years regard these questionnaires as onerous, and a major distraction from the campaign. Campaign workers are less circumspect in expressing their assessments and talk of these questionnaires as "hazing", being forced to "jump through hoops" or "kissing the ring" (an expression of fealty and subservience). A reason some organizations don't like to make the candidate responses public is that it can make their endorsees look like toadies.(foot#3)

By elimination (above), I view endorsement questionnaires as the best opportunity for improving the quality of information available to voters. Consequently, I am going to offer some advice to those creating future questionnaires and hope that others will chime in with their suggestions. The advice in the appendix below might seem obvious as you read it, but my experience is that it is not only not obvious to many, but resisted.

----Appendix: Advice on creating better questionnaires----


? Decide whether it is the questions or the answers that are the more important. A pragmatist (blog title) will say that it is the answers that are important, with the questions being merely a means to that end. However, I have been on several panels creating questionnaires where there were members who argued that it was important for the organization's identity/reputation to ask certain questions even though those members acknowledged that the candidates were unlikely to provide meaningful answers. They argued that the questionnaire would be a means for raising the public profile of those questions.

? Decide whether there is any value of having the candidates on the record with their responses to these questions. In most cases, the answer is No. If someone argues that there is, first ask them for examples where an officeholder's position on a vote was changed by pointing out his answer on such a questionnaire. Then ask for examples where the difference between a candidate's answers and his actions in office would cause people to vote against him, that is, people who wouldn't have voted against him based on the actions alone.

Evaluating potential questions:

1. Is this a reasonable question to ask of a candidate? Is it something that they can reasonably be expected to know?
Note: You might be surprised how many authors of questionnaires expect candidates to have the same level of knowledge as someone who has been deeply involved in a single issue for a decade.

2. Is the question fair to both incumbents and non-incumbents?

3. Is the question likely to differentiate the candidates? For example, if all the candidates are likely to give similar answers, the questions is probably a waste of time (yours and theirs).

4. Is the subject of the question of sufficient interest and importance to the likely audience to influence who they vote for?

5. Is the audience for the answers likely to know enough about the subject of the question to be able to assess the validity and quality of the answers?

6. Does the question allow candidates who have more sophisticated understanding of the issues (tradeoffs, stakeholders?) distinguish themselves from those with minimal knowledge (slogans)?

7. Are the candidates likely to give meaningful answers (or are they going to dodge it)? For example, a question that expects them to take a position that is going to alienate a significant block of voters is likely to produce vague, noncommittal answers.

8. Is the question unintentionally ambiguous? For example, does a slightly different reading produces substantial changes in the answer. For example, in some of the Yes-No questions in one of this year's questionnaires, my answers would have been dictated by my guess about the organization's intended interpretations.

9. Is the question too specific? Intended ambiguity is valuable because it allows answers to reveal the priorities and perspectives of the candidates.

10. Is the question answerable within the space/time allocated? The first test is to ask the person who proposes the question to give what they would see as an acceptable answer. They are often shocked to realize that they can't do it?you cut them off at 2-3 times the limit and they realize that they were still only getting started. This is a valuable test because it forces the proposer to focus on what are the most important aspects. Once the question gets reworked to satisfy this test, test it on someone with knowledge similar to what the candidate is expected to have.

11. Are there too many questions? Paring down often involves not just deciding which ones are most important, but selecting ones that work well together: show breadth, leverage off each other to reveal depth?

---- Footnotes ----

1. Importance of the PA Weekly endorsement: First from analysis of election results: I pulled records from the archives for City Council races back to 2005 and only one of those endorsed lost. For details, see my table (PDF and XLS). The table also shows endorsements for the Daily News and the Daily Post in 2009 and 2014. If you can fill in the gaps, please send me the data.
Second, from surveys such as this one from 2009.
Third, from anecdotal reporting of precinct workers of voters coming to the polling places carrying the PA Weekly.

2. An example of relevant questions is the PAN (Palo Alto Neighborhoods) questionnaire for the 2009 City Council race. Former mayor Sid Espinosa said (unprompted) "If you want to know what's important to Palo Altans today, read the PAN questionnaire. I have told council candidates that no other survey will better prepare them for the breadth of issues covered during the campaign or their council service. The PAN questionnaire hits nearly every hot issue facing the city today."
This was not a questionnaire for endorsements, but to provide public information. However, it can prime you to think about what an endorsement questionnaire should be. I had a major role in developing this questionnaire and provided a guide, that is, the questions annotated with my thoughts about what to look for in the responses.
When you are considering whether a question will be effective, it is useful to look at how candidates responded to similar questions in previous elections. The candidate responses to the 2009 questionnaire are available online at the PAN website under Issues.

3. In a distant time and distant place (decades ago, back East), I was at a campaign victory party and somehow happened to be present when one of the candidate's inner circle made an alcohol-enabled observation about one of the organizations that hadn't endorsed his candidate, something to the effect "They demanded that my guy kiss their (anatomy) for that endorsement. No way. Well, for the next four years when they come seeking support from him, I'm going to tell them to 'Kiss off!'" I don't know to what extent he carried through with that.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 22, 2014 at 2:12 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Below comment copied from the news article (and TSF topic/thread): Cory Wolbach edges out Lydia Kou for fifth seat on Palo Alto council.

Note: Discussion of correlation vs. causation is off-topic here if it is abstract rather than supported by data. Similarly for speculation about direction of causality, that is, did the endorsement aid the win, or was the endorser savvy enough to pick candidates that were already going to win. Legitimate questions are not speculation, but putting speculation in the form of a question doesn't change that (and there is a large gray area).

Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 16, 2014 at 9:39 pm

Here's the scorecard on how well influencers did:

Palo Alto Weekly - 5 Endorsements, 5 elected, 100% influence
Daily Post - 5 Endorsements, 4 Elected, 80%
Mercury News/Diana Diamond - 5 Endorsements, 4 Elected, 80%
Palo Alto Sensible Zoning - 4 Endorsements, 3 Elected, 75%
County Supervisor Joe Simitian - 6 Endorsements, 4 Elected, 66%
State Legislature Rich Gordon/Jerry Hill- 5 Endorsements, 3 Elected, 60%
Palo Alto for Good Government - 4 Endorsements, 2 Elected 50%
Prior Palo Alto Elected Officials - Mostly 50%

The Weekly has the biggest influence on the election.

Posted by, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Nov 22, 2014 at 9:54 pm

Doug, you asked "Also, for reasons unknown to me, it was apparently unacceptable to be willing to consider locating such a facility in place of the current incinerator rather than in the Baylands."

There are a few reasons why the incinerator site would not work. First, the incinerator uses a small footprint compared to biological approaches, so it does not free enough land. Second, when the incinerator is replaced, a new sludge dewatering facility is installed. Finally, the digestate is treated as a slurry in tanks that will place further demands on the land.

Given that, we are obligated to expand the footprint of the water pollution control plant. In that land we asked for the ability to manage not only yard trimmings, but food and digested biosolids.

The use of 4 acres adjacent to the water pollution control plant to allow for local composting, and for likely use in managing the digestate from the future digestors is a very fair exchange for adequate environmental infrastructure for what we know of now, and what we may not even know may come to us in the future.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 22, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Further discussion of the various options and alternatives for any composter facility is off-topic. The topic is the endorsements, and in this case the disparity between public perception and the actual basis for a possible endorsement. Last I knew, the incinerator site was one of the options being considered. The point I was trying to make, but apparently not well enough, was that the potential endorser want to rule out consideration of options that might turn out to be better choices (on the basis of economics, carbon footprint...).

Aside: If it is the case that a potential endorser is asking for such a commitment, I view that as asking the candidate to prejudge the various options in a private meeting. If that candidate had been on Council at the time, s/he would have been required to publicly report that conversation when the issue came before Council. But my understanding is that commitments made as a candidate are not subject to this requirement. But this is longstanding political practice and largely irrelevant to the discussion here.

Posted by Veteran, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 24, 2014 at 10:46 am

Doug, what is your opinion about the importance of endorsements from public officials and other notables? Some candidates for both city council and school board (A.C. Johnston comes to mind) had stellar endorsement lists including Anna Eshoo, Joe Simitian, and a raft of former mayors, school board presidents, etc., but fell short. Eric Filseth had relatively few endorsements aside from the newspapers. Are these endorsements worth having? Does anyone pay attention to them? What would you advise a candidate to do, given how time consuming it probably is to have all these conversations?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 24, 2014 at 1:51 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Endorsements have at least three roles:

1. Endorsements, or lack thereof, can be an initial filter of which candidates deserve further attention from that voter.

2. Endorsements can place the candidate on the political spectrum (similar to the Democratic/Republican classification), both generally and on specific issues.

3. "Wisdom of crowds" influence.

The problem with finding out how influential endorsements are is that that many of the categories of voters that are influenced by endorsements are also ones less likely to respond to surveys.

Even if endorsements were not very influential, the process of getting endorsements may influence the endorser to speak (more) favorably of the candidate within his/her network, and remember that people whose endorsements are viewed as valuable tend to be well-networked.

Posted by Veteran, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 24, 2014 at 5:03 pm

I was struck particularly by the apparent lack of efficacy of Anna Eshoo's endorsement. In the City Council race, she endorsed A.C. Johnston, Nancy Shepherd, Greg Scharff, and Cory Wohlbach, and in the school board race, Catherine Crystal Foster. Of that group, only 40% (Scharff and Wohlbach) won. It's true that Johnston and Shepherd were weaker candidates, but doesn't that belie the idea that endorsers try to "go with the winner"?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 24, 2014 at 5:19 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> ... belie the idea that endorsers try to "go with the winner"?

Recognize that "picking the winner" was only one of the factors in the balance of who to endorse.

The ability to pick winners is dependent on the quality of information one is getting. I suspect that she was poorly informed -- recognize that her advisers likely had different agendas than having her endorse winners. Those advisers may have prioritized getting her endorsement for the candidates they were supporting.

However, I think other factors predominated.

Johnston was recruited to run by Liz Kniss and endorsed by many other people who are supporters of Eshoo, so I suspect that this was a case of "support who my major supporters are supporting" (mentioned in OP as 2 degrees of separation).

Shepherd was an incumbent and had some supporters-supporting.

Posted by Veteran, a resident of Community Center,
on Nov 24, 2014 at 6:52 pm

Interesting, that makes sense to me. I wonder if some of these elected officials risk diminishing the "brand" by endorsements that obviously don't seem heartfelt, like some of Eshoo's. Or maybe her stature (and similar cases, like Simitian in this election) are so solid that they can't really be hurt by endorsements that are really political favors for others.

Posted by Reason, a resident of Palo Alto High School,
on Nov 24, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Reason is a registered user.

The latest election provided enough data that you can run a paired difference test on a few hypothesis to determine what mattered and what did not matter.

Here is what mattered in this latest election, and how it played out in different precincts (in order of effect):

- Weekly Endorsement ( Somewhat stronger in the North than the South)
- Member of the Residential Slate (Much stronger in the South, but somewhat visible everywhere)
- Incumbency (Similar through all precincts)

What did not matter:
- Endorsement by "Establishment" - basically local politicians and established political figures, was below the noise level.
- Most other ideas you could imagine simply don't test out well above the noise level.

So, if you had 2 of the 3 items above (Weekly Endorsement, Member of Slate, or Incumbency), you won.
If you only had 1 of the 3 items, it was a close race: See Cory and Lydia very close
If you had none, you lost soundly (AC).

Normally, I would have guessed incumbency as a larger factor, but it did not carry as much weight, probably due to small turnout. In a big election year larger numbers of low-information voters likely give incumbents a boost. That was Nancy's achilles heel - low turnout of the uninformed.

Of course issues matter, but only in as much as you can use them to differentiate between candidates; there wasn't much differentiation in this election, except possibly Slate membership/endorsement by PASZ, which was more of a closed club than a body open to agreement on political issues.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 24, 2014 at 11:12 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

> "Of course issues matter, but only in as much as you can use them to differentiate between candidates; ..."

There was substantial differentiation between the candidates, except that it didn't emerge in the election. Some of it was visible in the candidates' literature and more was easily discoverable if you attended the candidate events (kickoffs and coffees) and talked to the candidates.

Problem was that it didn't break through in the news coverage, nor in the forums (my blog "City Council Candidate Forums: Not worth watching").

This campaign saw an all-to-common instance of a practice the press uses to simplify coverage:
"What it suggests is how deeply the eagerness to pick a narrative and stick with it, and to resist stories that contradict the narrative, is embedded in the culture of campaign journalism." (When Conspiracy Theories Don't Fit the Media Narrative by Norm Ornstein, in The Atlantic, Nov 1 2014).
Note: This discussion of issues/narrative is a bit off topic -- I was thinking of writing a separate blog on it, but that looks unlikely -- so it is on-topic here. However, discussing candidate positions is off-topic, except as examples. And people responding to examples, should treat them as such (and not more).

The "PASZ slate" is an example of such a media (and other) spurious narrative (aside: and a spurious use of "slate"). It was a convenient shorthand for a subset of the prominent overlapping positions of those 4 candidates.
Holman was unequivocally not part of PASZ and was only eventually endorsed by that group (over substantial opposition).
Kou had been a leader of PASZ, but her decision to run was made independently of PASZ (I know, I was there) and she stepped down to run an independent campaign (witness her campaign staffing).
DuBois and Filseth did have campaign teams that drew heavily from PASZ members but had significant non-PASZ participation (I was not part of those campaigns, so I can't judge relative contributions).
If I had not been working on a campaign, there was a lot that could have been written about observations and inferences from who was endorsing and working on the various campaigns (top-8).

The media's choice of PASZ as the icon/touchstone for that political perspective was largely due to the lack of easy alternatives (other than "residentialists" which suffered from being vague and too flexible). As "Reason" alludes to, it was a group that was not organized to be involved in electoral politics--its focus was on studying development-related issues, specific major projects, the CompPlan... and making presentations to Council. PASZ pales in relation to other groups that are interested in electoral politics.

The use of PASZ as a touchstone to define the campaign narrative dramatically narrowed what issues were "in play". Don't blame the Council candidates -- professional politicians express frustration at being unable to break through media narratives. Once a candidate is trapped in a media narrative, a common strategy is to work within the constraints and hope that the narrative burns out and you have a chance to influence the shaping of the next narrative.

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