Why Politicians Shy Away From The Phrase ‘I Endorse’

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, left, made an appearance with Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander at an event last month. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, left, made an appearance with Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander at an event last month. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

When Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander was speaking in Nashville last month with Rand Paul – a tea party Senator who might be running for president – he made sure to make a disclaimer to the press:

“Let me preempt a question that might come. We’re not here to endorse each other. … We’re here on business.”

Paul was also in Alexander’s campaign commercial last year and was careful to say that wasn’t an endorsement either.

The list goes on in this year’s Senate campaign: Rick Santorum joined Alexander at a press conference last month after Howard Baker’s death. Sarah Palin commended his rival, Joe Carr, at a recent tea party rally. The state Democrat chairman called Senate primary hopeful Terry Adams a “strong, serious candidate.” All of those gestures fell short of official endorsements.

But to voters, the semantics probably didn’t make a difference. Cindy Kam, a professor who studies political psychology at Vanderbilt University, says when politicians just show up together, voters make “implicit associations” between them.

“We may not even be fully aware of them,” she says. “If my candidate, the candidate I prefer, is standing next to somebody I don’t know, then I may actually transfer some of that positive affect to the other candidate.”

It’s like retweeting something on Twitter. You can say it’s not an endorsement, but it still shows up on your profile.

Kam says this is something politicians are aware of. So why don’t they always just turn a perceived endorsement into an official one?

“It could be risky,” she says. “If that candidate makes a mistake, then someone who endorsed that candidate could be held accountable for it.”

And the endorsers’ reputations matter especially when they, too, are planning to run for office.

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