Starting Gate: Do Endorsements Matter?

Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama was big news yesterday but does it matter to actual voters?

In a lengthy and detailed critique of John McCain's campaign and the state of the Republican Party, the former Secretary of State recited the Obama campaign's arguments. He criticized McCain for the tone of his campaign, for being too connected with the policies of the Bush Administration (in which he himself once served) and for his selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. So, calling Obama a "transformational" figure, Powell made his endorsement.

Republicans were quick to try and tamp down the importance. "I don't know that it'll make a difference in Missouri," that state's governor, Matt Blunt, told CBS News' Bob Schieffer. "You know, Missourians admire Colin Powell for his many years of service to our country, but in the end they're going to evaluate where the candidates are on issues that are important to them: taxes, growing our economy, creating more wealth rather than redistributing existing wealth, protecting innocent life, protecting Second Amendment rights."

Democrats were just as quick to hail the significance of Powell's words. "General Powell was not seen as a dividing figure, but a uniting figure," said Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. "And so him vouching for Senator Obama convinces those of us who want to see a greater unification of the nation that he's the right guy."

Who's right? Maybe both to an extent but the reality is Powell's endorsement is unlikely to change minds among those who are leaning one way or another or push undecided voters into Obama's column in mass numbers. Endorsements help because they have a way of reinforcing already held perceptions and validating voters' own opinions. Unlike celebrity pronouncements, political endorsements do carry more weight, particularly when they are of the aisle-crossing kind. But they don't really change voter feelings. In fact, this particular one may be more reflective of the fracturing Republican Party than anything else.

The most important, and most-discussed, endorsement throughout the campaign has been Hillary Clinton's. Despite several attempts, Clinton has been unable to convey real support for her primary opponent. She may be in a no-win position in that whatever she says or however she says it will be parsed for signs that she's still not on board 100 percent. But it's her voters, not her, who are important to Obama. In the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 82 percent of Clinton's supporters say they will vote for Obama – up from 60 percent who said so in August.

What's changed in that period of time? Not much when it comes to Clinton's support for Obama, particularly when you factor in a convention in which discussion of the relationship dominated. But we're just two weeks away from Election Day and Democrats – even Clinton supporters – are starting to "come home."

Powell's endorsement is one more in a growing list of them – from celebrities, newspapers, commentators and the like. It helps continue to build the front-runner aura that surrounds Obama, one that is inching toward inevitability. That collective impact counts for more than a single endorsement, even one as hefty as Powell's.

Around The Track

  • With Joe Biden allowing reporters to look at more of his medical records this morning, the New York Times' medical expert says there are unanswered questions about the candidates' health.
  • Does Obama's $150 million month mean the public financing system is finished?
  • Palin is becoming more comfortable with, and accessible to, the national press corps, CBSNews.com's Scott Conroy reports.
  • Meanwhile, John McCain's post-event "ropeline" chats are becoming more tightly controlled by the campaign to avoid "unscripted" and potentially awkward moments, the AP reports.