When CNN’s election returns began to display across the huge TV screen at Joe Biden’s victory party in Columbia, South Carolina, Saturday night, the murmuring started, too, that Rep. Jim Clyburn’s enthusiastic endorsement of Biden three days before made more of a difference than anyone would have guessed.
The conventional wisdom is that endorsements now matter little, that people know what they think and want. Often these personal vouchings are most notable when they don’t come: Many of us won’t trust a candidate’s longtime confidant to tell us he or she is wonderful, but will take note when such pals decline to signal that wonderfulness.
But suddenly, with Biden’s big win Saturday and Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar’s sudden veer from supporting their own campaigns to head to Biden’s side Monday night to support his, endorsements are in. Fueling the change is the exit polling in South Carolina showing that Clyburn, the highest ranking black member of Congress, had delivered for Biden.
According to exit polls conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, 47% of voters in South Carolina said Clyburn's endorsement was an important factor in their vote, and 24% said it was the most important factor.
How Biden's big win in South Carolina, and Clyburn's, Klobuchar's and Buttigieg's support affect Super Tuesday contests are fascinating questions, but transitory ones.
What’s more fundamental is the concept of endorsements, whose level of effectiveness derives from trust and humility.
When we think we know everything and are cynical about the motives of our leaders and institutions, we don’t pay attention to endorsements. When we believe our leaders have expertise and information we don’t have, and we trust those leaders and the institutions they represent, we place great weight in their opinions.
When I watched Clyburn extol the political and personal virtues of Biden to a gymnasium full of ministers in Charleston Wednesday, and interviewed several of those ministers afterward, it was striking how much they cared about Clyburn’s praise, and how much they thought their parishioners would care. But upon reflection, it makes sense.
This is South Carolina, and in particular the state's black voters, many of whom trust Clyburn’s knowledge and have enough humility to question their own. Those who followed his lead signaled both that he, a political leader for 50 years, had earned their trust, and that they would bow to his knowledge of the players in making their pick.
This makes sense, even as, in New York, it may feel alien. Many of us New Yorkers know everything, of course. We often suspect our leaders are just in it for themselves, and that any endorsements are made out of personal interest.
To be clear, many in South Carolina, where I grew up, feel the same way.
But the effectiveness of Clyburn’s endorsement engendered both nostalgia and hope. There was a time when endorsements could win or lose races, because we trusted the leaders of the churches, political organizations, media and universities that we aligned with to be knowledgeable and have our best interests at heart. And because we had enough humility to know when we did not know, and to look to those we believed knew better.
Often those institutions and leaders failed us, and so trust eroded. Many of us now lack the humility that leads us to listen to others, to accept that they are more knowledgeable and follow them.
When the endorsements of our leaders again matter, and the fact that they matter is no great shock, it will be a sign that this terribly ill nation is on the mend.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.