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Former Governor Milliken endorses two Democrats, but does it matter?

This week, former Governor Bill Milliken knocked us off the edges of our seats when he started making candidate endorsements (Ok, maybe we weren’t at the edge of our seats).

But Michigan’s political watchers are always interested in who the state’s famously iconoclastic and moderate Republican Governor will endorse.

In 2004, Milliken endorsed Democrat John Kerry for President. In 2008, it was Republican John McCain. Although he withdrew it just a few weeks before the election.

Four years ago, Rick Snyder, in an effort to burnish his centrist bona fides, sought and received the imprimatur of Milliken.

And, now, this election-cycle, Milliken has endorsed Democrat Gary Peters for U.S. Senate and Democrat Mark Totten for Attorney General.

One has to wonder how the Republican base is going to view the fact that the current governor is the only Republican (at least so far in this election cycle) to get the Milliken endorsement.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak doesn’t seem to mind. “He’s not relevant any longer,” Schostak recently told WJBK TV.

Speaking of this week’s endorsements, we can’t not address the “Bowzer Bump.” (If you’re wondering just what the “Bowzer Bump” is, don’t worry -- you’re not the only one.)

The campaigns of Gary Peters and Mark Schauer, and some Democratic congressional candidates, got some campaign help this week from Jon ‘Bowzer’ Bauman, a star of Sha-Na-Na and the movie “Grease.”

Will the Bowzer endorsement help? No. But, endorsements like that can help attract attention (we’re talking about it, after all) and maybe even engage voters. But, it won’t change minds.

Now, this conversation may be a little esoteric for 2014. This has not been a big year for endorsements. In part, because the candidates are largely known and partly because this election seems to be much more about appealing to each party’s base - core loyalists - and convincing them to get out and vote, than it is about persuading undecided and Independent voters.  

But some endorsements can matter because they come with financial support, a network of volunteers or voter lists. Unions, associations and federations can offer money and organization for a get-out-the-vote ground-game.

We’ve talked about this before on It’s Just Politics, Democrats this election-cycle are really pinning their hopes on getting fellow Democrats who might otherwise stay at home to vote. They’re going to do that with direct contact. The ground-game is critical to that effort. A union, like the Service Employees International Union with a strong recent history of boots on the ground, could matter. But name endorsements probably won’t make the difference.

Interestingly enough, endorsements can sometimes matter more if a candidate does not get them. For example, a Democrat who can’t win union official support, a rural candidate who can’t get the support of the Farm Bureau, or a Republican who can’t get support from business groups like the Chamber of Commerce.

Political scientists will also tell us that endorsements don’t typically move voters but they can help legitimize how a voter feels about a candidate, particularly a new candidate. In 2008, for example, when Ted Kennedy endorsed then-Senator Barack Obama rather than Hillary Clinton in the Democratic party, it made some Democrats feel like it was OK to support the ‘new guy’ rather than the ‘establishment candidate.’

Another reason campaigns scrape together as many endorsements as they can? Because you just never know what is going to work. It is an axiom of politics that most of what you do in a campaign just doesn’t matter -- you just don’t which parts don’t matter until after the election.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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