In summary

The race for California endorsements has ratched up. Taken for granted by campaigns is a debatable premise — that these imprimaturs make a difference.

In the race to gobble up as many big name endorsements in California before the March 3 primary, few presidential contenders are quite as hungry as Mike Bloomberg.

In the last week, the billionaire former New York mayor has touted new stamps of approval from no fewer than 50 California politicos, big and small, including three members of Congress, two state senators, California’s treasurer and the former mayor of Los Angeles. They join a list of backers including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs.

Ever since California’s junior U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris dropped her presidential bid in early December — releasing the bulk of the state’s political elite, who had endorsed her, to seek out a new candidate — the race has been on to scoop them up.

These are, as Bloomberg termed them in a CalMatters interview, the coveted electoral “influencers.”

Like Instagram celebrities hawking a new fashion line, these are the big names who can suss out a presidential aspirant and say, “I’ve been there, done that, and you should do the same thing,’” he said.

Nonetheless, it’s unclear how many Californians will actually be turning to, say, State Treasurer Fiona Ma for their cues on how to vote on March 3. The race for California endorsements has ratcheted up. But taken for granted among political campaigns and many pundits is a debatable premise — that these imprimaturs actually matter.

Bloomberg probably would have liked the backing of L.A. mayor, Eric Garcetti, but he recently endorsed Joe Biden, who has been busy building upon a hefty bullpen of the state’s big political names, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein.  

The competition has been fierce in recent weeks. Amy Klobuchar earned the backing of Whittier Rep. Linda Sánchez, while Elizabeth Warren won the favor of San Francisco’s state Sen. Scott Wiener and both of that city’s Assembly members, Phil Ting and David Chiu.

Endorsements? “They’re press stories.”

Mitchell Schwartz, political director for Barack Obama’s California campaign

Pete Buttigieg is thin on big-name endorsements — there’s the mayor of West Sacramento, Christopher Cabaldon — but he was recently backed by Equality California, one of the country’s largest LGBTQ rights groups. Similarly Bernie Sanders’ biggest advantage comes not from the endorsements of California politicians such as Los Angeles Assemblyman Reggie Jones Sawyer, but from a lengthy list of organized labor backers, most recently including the University Professional and Technical Employees union.

Perhaps you’re wondering just who is this mythical undecided voter that could be swayed by an endorsement. Who’s waiting on the sidelines in this year’s presidential primary until they get some electoral advice from a state legislator, mayor or non-profit advocacy organization? But that question misses the real point of the endorsement game, said Mitchell Schwartz, the political director for Barack Obama’s California campaign in 2008.

“They’re press stories,” he said. Endorsements are an easy way to gin up a bit of news attention.

If a campaign gets enough big names behind it, a media narrative can begin to develop about the trajectory of their campaign. “That might be the Biden strategy,” said Schwartz. “He’s trying to show with his nomination, ‘I’m more than just successful, I’m inevitable.’”

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Such narratives might not matter much to the average voter, but could influence other party insiders, said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. 

“You have to be really paying attention to know, ‘oh, an endorsement from Kamala Harris or Dianne Feinstein, those are different endorsements that signal different things,’ “ he said. Those who can “read those tea leaves” — parsing the difference between a nod from the progressive Harris versus one from an establishment moderate such as Feinstein — are insiders, he said.

“And people on the inside tend to want to be on the side of the winner.”

Getting by with a little help from their friends

They also might want to be on the side of a political benefactor.

As The New York Times reported, many of Bloomberg’s endorsers — including mayors London Breed of San Francisco, Sam Liccardo of San Jose and Michael Tubbs of Stockton — attended a Harvard fellowship program that Bloomberg funded. 

Michael Bloomberg, touting the endorsement of state Treasurer Fiona Ma, at Old Soul Co. coffee shop in Sacramento on February 3, 2020. Photo by Ben Christopher for CalMatters

His big giving efforts have also pumped cash into various cities now represented by some of his new endorsers. In 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies ushered San Jose into its American Cities Climate Challenge program, entitling the city to millions in grant assistance — and giving its newly re-elected mayor, Liccardo, some positive news.

Some of the assistance has been even more direct. Bloomberg funneled $3.5 million into a political committee supporting former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa when he was running to be governor of California in 2018.

Bloomberg said his past financial support for his current crop of endorsers just speaks to their shared values.

“We try to help mayors all across the country,” said Bloomberg. “Mayors work together. And if they think the other one is doing a good job they try to help…they want their potential voters to know who they rely on for advice and who they have something in common with.”

“Can the endorser do something concrete other than utter the words, ‘I endorse’?”

Political science professor Jack Pitney

Some endorsers hold more sway than others.

“Endorsements matter if the endorser brings something other than his or her name,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Will the person help raise money? Will the person mobilize volunteers? Can the endorser do something concrete other than utter the words, ‘I endorse’?”

The “classic case” said Pitney, was New Hampshire’s former governor John Sununu, who backed George H. W. Bush in the 1988 presidential primary — but also helped him develop, broadcast and publicize an eleventh hour attack ad against his opponent Bob Dole.

“That’s the case where the endorsement matters because the endorser puts muscle behind the endorsement,” said Pitney.

Beyond maybe Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Kamala Harris, neither of whom have weighed in yet, few California politicians have that kind of institutional muscle. But some unions might fit the bill, said Schwartz. 

“Unions are the one group that for sure can bring money and their big membership bases,”  said Schwartz. “They’re used to doing field work and phone banking and door knocking.”

Elite consensus? What elite consensus?

Mayors and members of Congress might have brought more firepower to bear in an earlier era of stronger political parties and more public trust in elected leaders. But endorsements simply don’t matter as much anymore, said Marty Cohen, political science professor at James Madison University in Virginia and coauthor of “The Party Decides,” a book about the role of political parties in steering presidential nominations.

In decades past, a raft of endorsements could serve as a “symbol of party and elite consensus” — a bandwagon that other interest groups and electability-minded voters could hop onto, said Cohen. 

But voters these days find an elite consensus less alluring.

“The 24-7, in-your-face media coverage of the primary gives voters much more information about the process a lot sooner,” he said. In widely watched presidential campaigns, a single endorsement is only a drop into a brimming bucket of political analysis and opinion available to the average voter.

That higher level of media coverage, along with the ability of candidates to reach voters and raise money directly online, also means candidates are less dependent on party leaders, elected officials and other political gatekeepers of old. 

And in 2020, with the Democratic field so thoroughly split among fiercely competitive ideological factions, party leaders seem less likely to weigh in at the risk of alienating future voters.

Cohen’s research found that the share of governors who endorsed in presidential primaries spiked in the 1990s through the early 2000s, but has plummeted ever since. This year, only four of the country’s 23 Democratic heads of state have given any candidate an official nod.

So much for an elite consensus.

But endorsements are also a two-way street, and sometimes it’s the endorser who benefits more from the association. Lower-level elected officials backing a much higher profile presidential candidate might hope to endear themselves to that candidate’s enthusiastic supporters — or simply swaddle themselves in an aura of national importance. For his support of Sanders earlier this year, Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer got a speaking spot at the candidate’s Venice Beach rally, alongside lefty phenom Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

At the very least, said Pitney from Claremont McKenna College, “it helps in getting phone calls returned.”

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...