Endorsements flying, but voters look for ‘authority'

Karen Handel's campaign brain trust had just sat down to lunch at Alpharetta's Taco Mac on Monday when suddenly everyone's cellphone started blowing up with news that could change the dynamic in the race for the Republican nomination for governor: Sarah Palin had endorsed Handel.

Lunch forgotten, or at least hastily boxed, the trio returned to campaign headquarters to pump the news. In the closing days of the campaign, candidates in both parties are rolling out endorsements, but some are a bigger deal than others. Palin? Big deal. Bill Clinton endorsing Thurbert Baker, also on Monday, on the Democratic side? Big deal. Newt Gingrich backing Nathan Deal on Tuesday? Also important.

But how big or important? Do endorsements drive voters, or just the media bubble?

It all depends on what voters need, said Mary Stuckey, an expert in politics and political rhetoric at Georgia State University.

"The normal person doesn't sit around all day thinking about politics," Stuckey said. "What they need is a shortcut. They need a way to cut through the clutter with the minimum pain and the most reliable way. That's what endorsements are."

So for voters who need a way to engage before Tuesday's primaries, endorsements from big names like Palin, the former governor of Alaska and the 2008 GOP nominee for vice president, and Clinton, the popular former Democratic president, can help define a candidate.

But endorsements only go so far. Clinton and Palin have endorsed from afar -- Clinton via a news release and Palin through a posting on her Facebook page. Personal visits can have the biggest impact, said John Garst, a Republican pollster in Atlanta.

Palin, he said, is the most sought-after Republican endorsement in the country. The controversial yet charismatic Palin has shown an ability to move money and -- in some cases -- votes to chosen candidates; she is credited with helping candidates in South Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and New Mexico win tough primaries.

"The fact that she has endorsed, it does make a difference," Garst said. "Obviously, it would be better if she were here. Nevertheless, you can use an endorsement to get earned media, and that's what Handel is going to do."

Earned media, in political parlance, includes newspaper articles and television coverage. The media cover the endorsement and give it more attention, and more voters hear about it. Because Handel, the former secretary of state, lacks the financial resources of some of the other top Republican candidates in the race, especially front-runner John Oxendine, she might not be able to produce a paid television commercial touting Palin's endorsement.

For Baker, the state attorney general who supported Bill Clinton's wife, Hillary, in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, landing Clinton is nearly equal of Handel getting Palin. Clinton also held a fund-raiser for Baker in New York last year.

Baker said the endorsement is important to his efforts to upset former Gov. Roy Barnes in the Democratic primary because of Clinton's perceived popularity with Democrats.

"It's not every day you get a glowing endorsement from a former president of the United States," Baker said.

But Free Polazzo, 65, a Democrat from Douglasville, finds that neither Clinton nor Palin impresses him. Palin quit before her term as governor of Alaska ended and seems more inclined to gather support for a potential bid for president, Polazzo said.

As for Clinton, he didn't help his wife win the Georgia presidential primary in 2008.

"Sure, he is paying back Mr. Baker for supporting Mrs. Clinton, but is that a reason for me to vote for him? I think not," he said.

Instead, Polazzo said, he'll rely on another "authority," as Stuckey put it, to make his choice.

"What does matter is what my friends say about the candidates and the reasons they will be voting for them," Polazzo said. "Their opinions, I respect."

Roy Lewis, 52, an engineer from Byron, said endorsements matter less to him than a candidate's specific plans.

"I pay a little bit of attention to the ads that they run," said Lewis, who describes himself as a tea party voter. "I pay attention to what they're saying and take a realistic perspective about it."

For Rich Ephgrave, 36, a salesman for IBM who lives in DeKalb County, endorsements from Palin and Clinton don't help him figure out who can help fix Georgia's problems, from education to the economy.

"Bill Clinton being from Arkansas and New York and Sarah Palin being from Alaska -- I don't know if they've homed in on issues important to Georgia," said Ephgrave, who said he's supporting Handel, but not because of Palin.

On the Republican front on Tuesday, Deal landed Gingrich's endorsement, a nod that could meet Ephgrave's conditions.

"Nathan is an old friend ... and I think he would be a good governor," Gingrich, the longtime Georgia congressman and former U.S. House speaker, said after an event in Buckhead on the health care legislation recently enacted into law. "I think he would be a solid conservative, and I'm very comfortable endorsing Nathan."

Gingrich said Deal was a pragmatic, problem-solving conservative, but one who wouldn’t drift from his conservative moorings.

Deal got Gingrich through their long-standing relationship (they served together in the U.S. House). Baker, too, has known Clinton since the 1970s. Palin and Handel, on the other hand, would appear to be -- at best -- acquaintances. While Handel's campaign didn't know Palin's endorsement was coming, it wasn't a total surprise. They, like most of the campaigns, had pitched their candidate to Palin's team in the past few months. Palin and Handel spoke on Tuesday, a Handel spokesman said.

Some endorsements, like Palin, Clinton and Gingrich, are designed to make a splash and get attention. Others are designed to bore down to the local level and move feet. Barnes had that in mind when he unveiled the backing of 50 metro Atlanta pastors on Tuesday to go with Georgia Democratic icons like former Atlanta Mayors Shirley Franklin and Andrew Young.

Church leaders have long been an important facet of political influence; traditional Southern Democratic politics is rife with candidates appealing to local African-American ministers for support. Whether that brand of grass-roots activism has the same impact as it once did is unclear, but Georgia State's Stuckey said it represents another kind of authority to inform voters.

"There was the strong tradition in the African-American church of having that political motivation, and a lot of people are looking to that particular pulpit of having that political authority in a way that might be peculiar in the Episcopal Church I grew up in," Stuckey said. "It depends on where you look for your authorities."

Staff writers James Salzer and Steve Visser contributed to this article.