Sarah Palin vs. Bill Clinton: Whose endorsement means more?

Sarah Palin-endorsed candidates went three-for-four Tuesday night. But Bill Clinton helped Sen. Blanche Lincoln pull off a stunner. Just how much of an impact do their endorsements have?

Sarah Palin, who gave four primary political endorsements, speaks May 22 at the University of Denver.

Sarah Palin had a good night Tuesday, with three of the four candidates she had endorsed – including California’s Carly Fiorina and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley – either winning their primaries or making a runoff.

But the effectiveness of such endorsements is up for debate.

The endorsement game is in full swing, and politicians are happy to receive credit when someone they publicly back goes on to win – especially if that person can be useful, say, in a future presidential campaign. Former Alaska Governor Palin’s late endorsement of Terry Branstad for governor of Iowa puts her in his good graces in a key nominating state in the 2012 presidential race, should she decide to run. Of course, Mr. Branstad was going to win his GOP primary anyway, and no one’s saying that Palin’s endorsement was all that instrumental. But her bases are covered.

"Political scientists have concluded endorsements don’t make much difference most of the time,” says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, SC.

But there are exceptions. There is no hard evidence that Palin’s endorsement of Ms. Haley, the conservative Indian-American state legislator running for governor of South Carolina, helped her win 49 percent of the vote in a four-person field. But it appears to have, political analysts say. Haley’s poll numbers took off after Palin came out for her, as did fund-raising and media attention. The endorsement of Jenny Sanford, ex-wife of Gov. Mark Sanford, also likely helped. But political observers doubt that Palin was all that instrumental in Fiorina’s California Senate primary victory.

“California and South Carolina are different states,” says Mr. Guth. “In South Carolina, Sarah Palin is still seen as a Republican leader of the future.”

Another way to examine the "Palin effect" is through polling that looks at her as a potential 2012 presidential candidate. In polling of South Carolina, the firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) found that among Haley supporters, 27 percent wanted Palin to be the GOP nominee for president in 2012, with 25 percent favoring Newt Gingrich and 21 percent for Mitt Romney.

“An advantage sure, but nothing earthshattering,” wrote PPP director Tom Jensen on his blog. “The Palin endorsement helped Haley but it wasn’t a game changer by any means.”

In California, 32 percent of Fiorina supporters backed former Speaker Gingrich, 25 percent went for former Governor Romney, and only 21 percent favored Palin.

“That's just further indication that Fiorina's big victory had very little to do with passionate Palin supporters jumping on her train,” Mr. Jensen wrote.

The fourth candidate Palin had backed in Tuesday’s contests was Cecile Bledsoe, a Republican candidate for Congress in Arkansas. Palin endorsed her June 3 via her Facebook page, calling her “another Commonsense Conservative ‘mama grizzly.’ " It was just five days before the primary, and Ms. Bledsoe lost.

Previous Palin endorsees have also lost, including GOP primary contenders in Idaho and Mississippi, and House candidates in special elections in New York and Pennsylvania.

Some Democrats, in fact, are thrilled to have the polarizing Palin throwing her weight into competitive general election races, where her negatives can outweigh the positives.

The clearest rising star in political endorsements may be former President Bill Clinton. He got credit for helping fellow Arkansan, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D), win her primary runoff in a tough battle with the labor-backed lieutenant governor, Bill Halter. Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada is hoping some of the Clinton magic rubs off on his troubled reelection campaign, when the former president stands in for him at a campaign event Thursday evening.


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