Every election cycle, candidates for office in Durham line up to seek the endorsements of the city’s major PACsthe People’s Alliance, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, and Friends of Durhamas well as this newspaper. But how much do those endorsements actually matter?
A new study from a UNC professor published in Urban Affairs Review seeks to answer that question, using data from a 343-voter exit poll conducted after Durham’s 2015 municipal election. The survey asked voters not only for whom they voted but also how endorsements affected their vote. In that article, Andrea Benjamin and graduate student Alexis Miller found that “awareness of endorsements explains voter choice better than issues.”
In other words, the endorsements candidates receive can matter more than the issues they stake out. And from interviews with local politicians, the authors conclude that would-be council members are very aware of that fact. Consider this quote, from Jillian Johnson, who won her at-large seat in that election: “We sort of ran two campaigns. We ran a campaign to get the PA endorsement and then we ran a campaign for the election.”
“Although we are unable to provide evidence of the causal effects of endorsements in this article,” Benjamin and Miller write, “we provide evidence of an important precondition for such a causal effect: voter awareness of endorsements. We argue that for endorsements to matter in real-world elections, voters must be aware of these endorsements.”
Indeed, their analysis showed that knowledge of one of Steve Schewel’s endorsements translated to a twenty-percentage-point increase in support; for Johnson, twenty-five points; for Charlie Reece, twenty-four points.
Also, some endorsements matter more than others in this town, the study found. Between 2009 and 2015, fifty-nine candidates ran for Durham City Council, and twenty-nine of them made it to the general election. In the primaries, the PA endorsed all eight winners; the DCABP endorsed five winners and two losers; and the Friends of Durham endorsed four winners and two losers. The INDY endorsed five winners and no losers. In the general, the same story played out: the PA endorsed ten winners and one loser; the DCABP and Friends of Durham had more mixed records; and the INDY went six for six.
“In particular,” the authors write, “endorsements from the People’s Alliance and the Independent Weekly translated into wins for this election.”