Understanding and evaluating endorsements


John Silva

John Silva, NBCT

Senior Director of Education and Training

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The 2018 midterm elections are only three months away — and as political candidates ask people for their support, they will often feature the endorsements they receive from editorial boards, political organizations, unions and even celebrities. These endorsements can be a useful resource as voters decide how to cast their ballots, and they are often an indication of a candidate’s popularity among specific sectors of the electorate.

Yet students may not realize that these endorsements are, in their own way, a form of persuasion. They must be carefully evaluated, and the motives for making them examined. Here is an overview of different types of endorsements typically seen during a campaign, along with links to resources.

Endorsements by a newspaper’s editorial board

A newspaper’s editorial board is usually composed of journalists, each with expertise in specific topics, who together determine the publication’s “voice” on a variety of issues. Editorials — including political endorsements — reflect the opinion of the newspaper as agreed upon by a majority of the editorial board. Editorials are part of a publication’s opinion section, and the editorial board is typically kept separate from the news-gathering process.

Each outlet has its own process for making endorsements; some never do so, and some do so only for specific races. Candidates or their representatives may appear in person before the editorial board to answer questions. Occasionally, an endorsement decision may take the form of a closed-door debate between candidates. In many cases, candidates submit answers to lengthy questionnaires prepared by the board. After vetting the candidates, the board meets to deliberate and decide whether (and whom) to endorse; their decision is then published as an editorial.

Endorsements by a political party

A political party’s endorsement of a candidate is typically an indicator that the candidate agrees with most or all the key statements in the party’s platform. The platform is an official document that outlines the party’s ideals or its political goals. It offers guidance to party members on how they should advocate for — and vote on — political and social issues.

The national party platforms are debated and finalized every four years, in advance of the presidential nominating conventions:

In addition, state and local party organizations may also publish platforms, focusing on issues that are most important to voters in a specific state or locality:

Endorsements by a political organization/political action committee

These endorsements are generally focused on a single political or social issue. They can come from advocacy or special interest groups, industry lobbying organizations, community groups, nongovernmental organizations or other similar groups. The key to understanding an endorsement from one of these organizations is to focus on the specific issues that are central to its mission.

Endorsements by a union

Like political organizations, labor unions have political priorities and goals that are aligned with the needs of their members. The process varies depending on whether the union is national, state or local; it often involves a questionnaire or interview with a committee or panel formed by the union. This group will make recommendations that may be voted on by the union’s delegates or its full membership.

Endorsements by celebrities

In rhetoric, this type of endorsement is known as the “bandwagon effect”or “appeal to popularity”; it wants you to vote for a candidate simply because a celebrity says you should.

For example, candidates hope that endorsements from popular sports figures will sway fans of the team or sport associated with the endorser. In the 2016 presidential campaign, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka and former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight supported Donald Trump, while two of the most popular players in the National Basketball Association — Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers — backed Hillary Clinton.

In 2008, Sen. Barack Obama was publicly supported for the Democratic presidential nomination (and then for the presidency) by one of the wealthiest and most influential celebrities in America, Oprah Winfrey. The “Oprah effect” was a well-known phenomenon: Books chosen for Oprah’s Book Club became bestsellers, products she gave away in her show’s “Favorite Things” episodes became hot commodities and charities featured on her show saw a significant bump in donations. Winfrey even minted other celebrities; a number of well-known individuals — including cooking-show host Rachael Ray, financial advisor Suze Orman and interior designer Nate Berkus — owe much of their success to having appeared regularly on her show.

Yet a Pew Research Center survey from 2007 — when Obama was battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination — found that over two-thirds of voters (69%) said that Winfrey’s endorsement would have no effect on their vote. This was similar to the lack of enthusiasm about endorsements by a local newspaper (69%), an individual’s faith leader (67%) and other celebrities, such as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly (64%) and pro golfer Tiger Woods (79%).

Applying this in the classroom

There are several ways that students can examine endorsements. This could be part of an exercise where students compare candidates in a specific race or simply an evaluation of endorsements in general.

  • Create a chart showing the endorsements received by each candidate and ask students to examine them closely. Have them weigh the value of each endorsement and explain the potential risks or rewards for each one.
  • Identify organizations in your city or state. Have students research to determine how those organizations decide when and who to endorse.
  • Research the history of endorsements from national or state organizations. How often do candidates who receive those endorsements get elected? Create a chart to show rankings of the endorsements that most often result in election.

Evaluating and weighing endorsements is one important skill needed to be an informed voter. Like any claim, an endorsement should be critically evaluated. If you have resources or activities for evaluating endorsements that you have developed or used in your classes before, please send them to me— I’d like to be able to share civics-related resources and help enrich civics curriculum.

Follow me on Twitter: @MrSilva

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