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While Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain focus on winning over individual voters, some of their campaign strategists are thinking bigger, exploring ways to win the endorsements of respected groups and organizations that can bring hefty donations to the campaigns and wield influence that may even sway the election.
Two types of groups are particularly powerful during an election year, says Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University and author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. “It’s those with money and those that can move big chunks of voters.”
The allure of organizations that are willing to donate money to a presidential campaign is clear. With the candidates’ need to fund everything from travel expenses to staff salaries, groups that run advertisements in support of the candidates give what amounts to free publicity. For example, Planned Parenthood, which endorsed Obama, unveiled an advertisement criticizing McCain for being out of touch on the issue of birth control. On the other side of the coin, Vets for Freedom, an organization of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has released a number of ads that tout the successes of military action in both countries and denounce detractors of the wars, including Obama.
But groups that have a strong influence on their members’ voting choices are just as appealing to the candidates as those with deep pockets, since they can potentially turn the tide in states that are key to the election.
Planned Parenthood pledges to bring one million voters to the polls in support of Obama. Another organization with a lot of clout is AARP, a nonprofit group for people age 50 and older, says Harris-Lacewell. “The AARP can move on a moment’s notice huge parts of the elderly population because of the notion that they are experts who, in a nonpartisan way, will look out for the interests of the elderly and of the retired,” she says. “So the retired and elderly pay attention to what the AARP says. If they say a candidate’s Medicare plan is good, people generally trust that it is.”
When it comes to issues that Americans are most concerned about, groups considered experts on those subject matters are particularly powerful when it comes to influencing voters. For example, with healthcare being of concern to many Americans, “if one of the candidates gets a great deal of endorsements from medical organizations and healthcare advocacy organizations, that’s going to carry a lot of weight,” Harris-Lacewell adds.
Likewise, people who are in certain professions or who feel strongly about a particular cause will likely look for cues about who they should vote for from associations they believe represent their interests. “For me, as a parent of a school kid, the NEA doesn’t tell me a lot. But if you’re a principal of a high school or head of a teacher’s union, their endorsement matters,” says Harris-Lacewell, referring to the National Education Association’s recent endorsement of Obama.
But organizations aren’t just powerful because of