Campaign Endorsements: Behind the Curtain | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

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.

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