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Do Political Endorsements Have Real Impact?


On Friday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie came out and endorsed Republican front-runner Donald Trump. So how does this happen? How do candidates and their staff get people to endorse their campaigns? We're joined now by a man who knows, Bill Burton. He's a former deputy White House spokesman under President Obama. He now works as a political consultant. Bill, thanks for being with us.

BILL BURTON: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: First off, Donald Trump endorsed by Governor Christie. What do you make of that?

BURTON: It's probably the only New York Times breaking news alert that I got on my phone where I actually exclaimed out loud when I saw it. I was shocked to see it. But when you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. This is his way to still be relevant in the world and not have to just be governor of New Jersey, where he's not widely loved.

MARTIN: Let's unpack this a little bit. What do each of these men get, the endorser and the endorsee, specific to this Trump-Christie thing but also generally speaking?

BURTON: Well, in this case, Trump came off of a battering in the debate. So having a big-name endorser like Chris Christie come on board gives him control of the news cycle. And for Chris Christie, it gives him an opportunity to be involved in the campaign. Now generally, endorsements I don't think necessarily matter. Every once in a while, they'll give you a great news cycle, which Marco Rubio got when Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, endorsed him. But it didn't actually help him on the polls in South Carolina in any significant way. But when Ted Kennedy endorsed then-Senator Obama, you know, that was a monumental event that was important for the campaign in the sense that people all across the Democratic Party were given permission by Uncle Teddy to get behind this upstart candidate from Illinois who was doing politics in a different way than we had seen in a - ever, really.

MARTIN: So endorsements don't matter unless they do.

BURTON: You know, when Jeffrey Katzenberg endorsed President Obama, that was particularly meaningful because once he put his mind to it, he raised a great deal of money for President Obama. So that has meaningful and material impact. Other endorsements are, you know, Steve King endorsed Ted Cruz in Iowa. I don't know that that had any real meaning behind it. But I - you know, I don't think that, for the most part, congressional endorsements are that meaningful.

MARTIN: And finally, how much stagecraft is considered when you think about how to unroll a particular endorsement? I mean, Chris Christie, this is, like, coming as kind of a surprise. He's on stage. Other endorsements - Eric Garner's daughter endorsed Bernie Sanders. It was a YouTube highly-produced video. I imagine there are real conversations within campaigns about, all right, now we've got this endorsement; how do we get our most bang for the buck in unrolling it?

BURTON: Well, yeah. Every endorsement that's considered to be significant, there's a lot of time spent at the campaign figuring out how exactly you're going to roll it out. But then sometimes people just come out and endorse you and you have no idea it's coming.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BURTON: For example - (laughter) - for example, Bill Maher announced on his show that he was cutting a million-dollar check to Priorities, our super PAC. And I found out about it on Twitter. Like, I was just out on a Friday night. And people started tweeting about it. And so I bought that night.

MARTIN: That's Bill Burton. He's a Democratic political consultant and former deputy White House spokesman for President Obama. He's also currently raising money for Hillary Clinton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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