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Breaking Down The Impact Of Presidential Endorsements

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What is the value of one politician throwing his or her support behind another? This week saw the highest-ranking African American member of Congress, Jim Clyburn, throw his support behind former Vice President Joe Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM CLYBURN: I want the public to know that I'm voting for Joe Biden.

KELLY: Clyburn represents South Carolina, and the primary there this weekend will be decided by African American voters, which means Clyburn's endorsement is worth a lot. Let's talk more about political endorsements and their value.

I am joined from South Carolina by NPR's Ron Elving. Hey there, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise. Good to be with you.

KELLY: Good to have you with us. OK, so when I say this endorsement is worth a lot, is it? Do you agree? How big a deal is this for Joe Biden and his campaign?

ELVING: It could make all the difference. More than 60% of the Democratic vote in South Carolina is expected to be African American. You need that vote. And no one in the state is more revered by those voters than Jim Clyburn. He's been in Congress for decades. He's been the No. 3 leader in the Democratic Party for more than a decade. And in 2008, his decision to go with Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in this primary gave that young Illinois senator an enormous upgrade in the eyes of black people in South Carolina and a long step toward the nomination that year.

So we should also note, of course, that Clyburn will be 80 this year, and his endorsement probably means the most among older black voters who are already with Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders has built some strength among the new generation of black voters. And we should also note that billionaire Tom Steyer has created his own buzz in the black community with a $23 million media blitz largely directed at that community.

KELLY: You mentioned Barack Obama, and you're reminding me of that other massive endorsement moment during the 2008 campaign, when Ted Kennedy - part of the Kennedy political dynasty, of course, the lion of the Senate - when he threw his weight behind this young upstart Barack Obama.

ELVING: Oh, yes. They actually had a major event just to make that announcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED KENNEDY: I'm proud to stand with him here today and offer my help, offer my voice, offer my energy, my commitment to make Barack Obama the next president of the United States.

(CHEERING)

ELVING: Kennedy's nod to Obama was another signal to union Democrats, older Democrats, white-collar Democrats and blue-collar Democrats that Obama could be their inheritor of the spirit of better times for the party, a connection to the Kennedy legend as the Clyburn endorsement is a connection to the civil rights era.

KELLY: So are political endorsements always of such great value?

ELVING: No. In fact, most are not that valuable, and many are worth very little. But it has been crucial, especially for vice presidents running for president. George Bush, obviously, expected and got Ronald Reagan's endorsement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: I've just got to believe that when the American people say Election Day, they'll mean we want George Bush.

(CHEERING)

ELVING: But the very fact that it came kind of late was seen as weakening for his candidacy.

KELLY: Although sometimes it's less than welcome. I'm remembering Al Gore running for president in 2000. Bill Clinton, of course, was president. And as I'm remembering, Al Gore didn't seem to particularly want Bill Clinton's endorsement. It was problematic.

ELVING: It was problematic. Gore very much wanted to be his own man, and he did not want Clinton's baggage. Clinton was an impeached president, even though it had been a couple of years since that whole process worked through, and he was acquitted in the Senate, as President Trump was. And he also didn't want Clinton's record of trimming the truth at times and the accusations against Bill Clinton that presage, if you will, the #MeToo era.

KELLY: Is there any data that we can hang all this on? Is there any way to actually ever really know what difference an endorsement makes?

ELVING: Nothing terribly reliable in that sense. Voters, as a rule, don't volunteer that they made their choice based on an endorsement. But the difference it can make can sometimes be seen and measured in polling and in the changed media narrative, and we may see a case of that here in South Carolina.

KELLY: So beyond South Carolina, as this nomination process plays out, is Barack Obama - is he the glittering prize, the endorsement that Joe Biden and, I assume, every other Democrat would really love to get?

ELVING: The fact that you see several of these candidates, certainly Joe Biden, name-checking him here in South Carolina all the time and elsewhere as well is a strong indicator of the power that endorsement might have. But the former president has thought his strongest contribution would be to step in later, after the nominee is perhaps clear, to try to unite the party and build a unified campaign for the fall. And there are plenty of people second-guessing that strategy, to be sure.

KELLY: All right, Ron Elving there talking to us from South Carolina about the power of the political endorsement. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.