Endorsement Game Isn’t What It Seems

Maybe Angelo Dundee, the wise and wizened trainer of Muhammad Ali, should have been a political consultant. Mr. Dundee, who knows every trick of the boxing trade, is fond of observing that “there is no advantage too small to take.”

In politics, the average campaign operative clings to that ethos as tightly as a woozy prizefighter in a clinch.

The candidates in this year’s Mayoral election are looking for an edge-any edge-over their opponents. This is most obvious in the fight for endorsements.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has gloried in the backing of everyone from the controversial Independence Party to the League of Conservation Voters.

Among the Democrats, Fernando Ferrer’s and Gifford Miller’s Web sites each feature long lists of the officeholders who have endorsed the candidate.

Virginia Fields and Anthony Weiner trumpet the people they have enlisted to their respective causes just as loudly.

But do these endorsements matter? New York’s political world has only a handful of truly major figures. Do the others-the soporific State Assembly members, the colorless City Councilors, the dreary district leaders-actually have the power to affect an election’s outcome?

Many people doubt it.

“Endorsements may give a sense of momentum to a candidate, but whether or not they generally result in an actual transfer of votes is debatable,” said George Arzt, a veteran Democratic consultant who isn’t involved in this year’s Mayoral race.

“In general, endorsements are not all that important,” said John Mollenkopf, director of City University’s Center for Urban Research. “There are a few people who have a resonance with a certain community. But most people don’t care very much about which City Council members are going to back Gifford Miller or whoever.”

Why, then, does the process of soliciting and receiving endorsements attract such attention? Perhaps because it provides something for everyone.

Every candidate, even the feeblest, can draw a few endorsements, thus bolstering his or her credibility. Every local political figure, even the most obscure, can look forward to having his or her ego stroked by a succession of suitors.

And every media outlet can be grateful-especially on a slow news day-for the opportunity to present an endorsement as a fresh and important development, though it is usually neither.

The second of these three factors is the most underacknowledged. The whole endorsement shebang often offers greater dividends to the potential endorser than the endorsee.

The people who are being asked to bestow their blessings can, for a start, strike deals as part of the standard political horse-trading. The candidate’s beseeching advances also carry a powerful subtext: They suggest that the would-be backer has it within his or her gift to deliver a bloc of votes, or significant organizational support, or both. The reality may be rather different, but the perception of influence alone can burnish a reputation.

The most skilled political operators stretch out the endorsement process in a way that delivers maximum publicity for their purposes. Take the Reverend Al Sharpton, for example. Back in April, Mr. Sharpton attracted expansive media coverage by announcing-well, not very much, actually. The reverend said in an interview with The New York Times that he wouldn’t endorse any of the Democratic Mayoral candidates. He then added the hardly insignificant caveat that he might endorse one of them. Sometime. Maybe in August. Just not now.

Mr. Sharpton’s non-declaration was enough to kick off a second round of stories.

Was the activist exacting payback for a lack of support from the candidates during his 2004 Presidential bid? Was he trying to nudge them toward courting him more assiduously?

Whatever the answers to those questions, the most notable aspect of the whole episode was this: Stories that had been provoked by Al Sharpton served, by their mere existence, to reinforce a precious message about Al Sharpton. That message was: “I am important.”

Mr. Sharpton may indeed be important. Or, as some suggest, his political magnetism may be exaggerated. Either way, it’s a tribute to his tactical wiles that he was able to manipulate the endorsement issue so adeptly, in a way that produced zero benefit for anyone but him.

Some endorsements cannot be dismissed out of hand. There is a select number of people, including ex-Mayors like Rudy Giuliani and, at a stretch, Ed Koch, who still hold sway with sections of the electorate.

More broadly, the endorsement of labor unions, especially behemoths like Local 1199 of the health-care workers’ union, can be crucial because of the logistical firepower they lend to a campaign.

Ultimately, though, every endorsement-and every claim made about its value-should be regarded with skepticism. Most of them are worth little in the end. Endorsements are like opinion polls. In isolation, they tend to be meaningless. Collectively, they make a small impact.

There is only one that really matters. The voters deliver it on Election Day.