WASHINGTON — Political analysts generally discount the impact of endorsements on an election campaign — especially one so late in the season as Colin Powell's Sunday of Barack Obama.
"It's been shown endorsements don't matter that much, except early in the game when it helps candidates raise money," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Research Center.
But Powell is no ordinary endorser — an African-American who was Ronald Reagan's national security adviser; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the first President Bush and President Clinton, and a Republican who was George W. Bush's first secretary of state.
In a former time, Powell’s name was often mentioned as the most likely person to be America’s first black president. Just before he left government in 2004, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 70 percent of Americans had a positive opinion of him.
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So when he unequivocally endorsed Obama in a seven-minute presentation on "Meet the Press" analysts were inclined to see it as a major development — though they differed on how major.
Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, used the word "devastating" to describe Powell’s point-by-point critique of the McCain campaign. Powell called Obama a "transformational" leader, said McCain was "unsure" about economic policy, that Sarah Palin was not qualified to be vice-president, and that the campaign's effort to tie Obama to William Ayers was "inappropriate."
"This is a more important endorsement than Oprah's," Sabato said.
Others thought the impact was more subtle.
"Powell gives Obama a little more credibility," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducts surveys in several states.
Wayne Lesperance, associate professor of political science at New England College in Hennicker, N.H., explained why Powell could matter:
"Even among people inclined to vote for Obama, there’s still a little bit of hesitation because of his inexperience and possibly race. Powell can help make a difference for those folks."
Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, also saw the endorsement as significant.
"I can't think of a more important endorsement at this point in the campaign," she said, noting that Florida, where Obama and his Republican rival John McCain are locked in a virtual tie, begins early voting on Monday. Other important swing states, such as North Carolina, began early voting last week.
MacManus said that Powell appeals to independents who are socially liberal, fiscally conservative and moderate on defense issues. Because they shun party labels, they are more swayed by personality, and Powell is a respected national figure. Independents make as much as 9 percent of voters in swing states.
"That is why this is a prized endorsement," MacManus said.
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, a state McCain is battling mightily to bring into the Republican column, echoed those comments.
"This is a huge endorsement, maybe the most significant endorsement he's got," Madonna said. "For undecided voters who are looking at their concerns about national security and defense, this is a plus."
Others cautioned that Obama supporters should not expect Obama to suddenly surge in the polls.
"Ask the general public who Colin Powell is, and less than half could probably tell you," said Smith, of the University of New Hampshire Survey Research Center.
"This is a tactical victory for Obama," said Marco Rimanelli, director of international studies at Saint Leo University in Florida.
Samuel Best, a Connecticut political analyst, agreed.
"The impact of things that occur at the end of a campaign tend to be overstated. Remember, McCain and Obama have been the expected nominees for six months now," said Best, director of the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.
Powell's effect is likely to be felt in states with histories of independent voting, or swing states with large active or retired military populations, like Florida.
Rimanelli, whose Florida-based university offers courses at military facilities all over the country, noted that Powell remains respected because even though he was "betrayed in many ways" by the Bush administration on Iraq, "he remained a loyalist who did not go away and resign quickly."
Best suggested Powell's greatest impact may not be on the presidential race at all, but on those of moderate Republicans who are supporting McCain. Powell's endorsement could swing independents not only to Obama, but perhaps to other Democrats.
That, Best said, could be a problem for someone like Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who is one of McCain's most ardent supporters in a state that went overwhelmingly for Democrat John Kerry, from the neighboring state of Massachusetts, in 2004, but hasn't elected a Democrat as governor since 1986.
If more undecideds are persuaded to vote for Obama in Connecticut, they might also vote for Shays' opponent, Best said.
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