Even the most casual observer of politics probably understands that organizations endorse candidates who are running for office.
What might be less obvious is that not every organization's endorsement is the same. There's a reason that politicians prioritize certain endorsements over others, and why certain organizations are more sought after than others. And consequently, why those organizations might hold significant influence over the political process.
Understanding what makes an endorsement valuable will help outside observers better understand the dynamics at play in both campaigns and throughout the legislative process. For candidates who are new to campaigns, this overview will hopefully make it easier for them to assess which endorsements are valuable and which ones might not be as important.
There are essentially three main categories that give an endorsement value in from the perspective of a candidate for office:
b) Name brand
c) An engaged membership
Some organizations have all of these. Some organizations have some. Some have none.
If you're an outside observer of politics, there may be times where you wonder why a certain group is able to hold more influence over the legislative process relative to other groups. The more of these categories that an organization can check off, the more political influence they likely have.
The importance of money behind an endorsement
By now, you likely know how important money is in politics. Without it, you probably can't run a campaign. Promoting a candidate and message to thousands or even hundreds of thousands of voters costs money, and that money has to come from somewhere.
Candidates typically raise money on their own; but rarely do you meet a candidate who ever feels satisfied with the amount of money they've been able to raise or the amount they feel will be spent in their race. Running a campaign is like struggling for air in the middle of an ocean, and each injection of money feels like an additional breath of oxygen.
In some cases, an organization is willing and able to spend money indirectly on a candidate – a form of spending known as an independent expenditure. The expense in many jurisdictions can't be coordinated with the candidate's campaign. When funds are spent competently and effectively in the eyes of the candidate, they are eternally grateful. More important, these extra efforts can often be what pushes a candidate across the finish line to victory. Not only does this make the candidate feel extra warm and fuzzy, but it also ensures the organization's preferred candidate is the one who will be in office: a particularly important fact especially when the opponent might be at odds with that organization's goals.
Depending on the campaign finance rules in a given election, in some cases organizations will simply write a check directly to the candidate. This is a fairly common occurrence with corporations or PACs that are affiliated with organizations. In some cases, organizations will write a check for the legal limit, and then do additional spending independently.
There are entities that exist that few voters have heard of. However, because they might be significant funders of campaigns, they still might hold influence in the political process.
A good example of this would be the Club for Growth, a conservative organization with plenty of money. Conservative candidates for federal office typically clamor for this endorsement – particularly in primaries – because they know it will come with a certain level of financial support. Yet, if you asked most voters what the Club for Growth is – or if their endorsement made a difference in how they voted – most would probably tell you they've never heard of it and it didn't matter.
However, money isn't a requirement of being an influential endorsement.
The impact of branding on endorsements
There are organizations that exist that spend very little, if anything, on candidates – either directly or indirectly. However, over the years, they've built up significant name brand recognition among voters. In some cases, this is an ideological branding – candidates who are endorsed by that organization must clearly believe in the organization's mission. In other cases, it might be a more practical branding. Teachers, firefighters, and police officers all come to mind in this category. They are professions that 100% of the population is aware of and generally respect, just due to their existence in daily life of the ordinary voter.
A good example of an organization that is able to exert influence without much money spent supporting candidates is the ACLU. According to Open Secrets, the ACLU spent only about $80,000 on political candidates federally in 2022. This is a relatively small amount considering the number of seats in Congress.
Yet, because the organization has spent generations focused on a particular set of issues, they've become a trustworthy messenger among progressives. Their endorsement sends a message to progressive voters: this candidate is one of us!
That alone is worth a lot – and it's partly worth a lot because it's a stamp of endorsement that money can't buy (both literally and conceptually!).
Another example would be the endorsement of Tea Party chapters during the 2010 election cycle. As grassroots organizations, they didn't have a lot of money. But their endorsement was often enough to catapult a lesser-known candidate to victory in Republican primaries just based on the ideological messaging that the endorsement sent to conservative voters.
Being able to put the logo of an organization on a piece of mail can be the equivalent of tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in value. It's this dynamic that helps explain why candidates who are outspent in terms of hard dollars can often still prevail. To a certain extent, they weren't really outspent: their dollars spent were just able to stretch a lot further, because they were able to convey a simple message to voters ("Teachers support me!") a lot more efficiently.
As an aside, I would argue that ideological endorsements play a more important role in the primaries – at a time where candidates need to ensure their respective bases of ideological fidelity – relative to general elections, where the impact of money and more practical endorsements likely plays a more significant role. There are certainly numerous exceptions to this, but this is generally the dynamic that exists.
The value of an engaged membership behind an endorsement
This third category is a bit tangential to the other categories, but it essentially includes organizations that have an engaged membership that is able to deliver contributions, votes, or labor.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a good example of this. Not only do they have the branding category well secured (a candidate endorsed by the NRA very clearly favors gun rights in the eyes of certain voters), but they also have a very vigilant, dedicated, and large member base that typically votes only on gun policy. A candidate who receives their endorsement can almost certainly count on the vast majority of that membership voting for them – which can be critical in Republican primaries.
Labor organizations often have large member bases, and are typically very accustomed to volunteering for the candidates that the organization has endorsed. If an organization's endorsement can promise a few dozen (or more) volunteers over a few weekends to a campaign – particularly a local campaign – the value to the candidate can be significant (and it certainly makes an emotional impact on the candidate as well!).
In other cases, some endorsements open up the wallets of the members, who may often feel "permission" to give to a certain candidate. Some organizations will actively solicit donations from their members on behalf of the candidate. Typically, these are smaller dollar donations – but if an organization has a lot of members, the money can add up.
Examples of powerful endorsements
Now that we've run through the categories, we can start to see why certain groups can often hold so much political weight.
It partly explains why labor has as much influence as it does. Generally speaking, labor unions are able to exert all three categories of influence: they typically spend significant funds on candidates and campaigns, their endorsement indicates support for workers, and their large membership volume typically ensures shoes on the pavement around election time.
Police, firefighters, and teachers unions are able to especially benefit from the name branding; not only are they generally popular professions that everyone understands, but voters generally want these professions to function well. If a candidate is endorsed by one of these groups, there's an understanding that the candidate is capable of ensuring these services continue to function.
The factors listed above also explain why a local Chamber of Commerce can be a strong endorsement in a local election. Most voters understand that the Chamber of Commerce generally represents the business community and advocates for a strong economic environment. Since most of their members are successful businesses, they likely have the ability and incentive to donate to endorsed candidates.
A note for candidates
While most of this article has focused on the raw political incentives that play a role in endorsements, it's ultimately most important that you seek endorsements from groups that you align with politically. You're never going to agree 100% with an organization's positions on issues, and they aren't going to agree with you 100%. But if there's enough alignment for you to be comfortable, it's an endorsement you should seek.
You'll feel better about the process, and you'll be better able to convince those organizations to endorse your campaign, because you're standing firmly on principled ground.
I've seen far too many candidates meet with one organization and tell them what they want to hear, and then meet with another organization and tell them what they want to hear – even if those two positions entirely contradict each other. Occasionally candidates can get away with this once or twice, but they also don't make it very far in politics. Eventually, those contradictions will come home to roost.