WASHINGTON — When the Service Employees International Union announced early this month that it would forego endorsing a presidential candidate on a national level, the Associated Press called it "an especially painful blow to John Edwards." But the former North Carolina senator, who is widely considered organized labor's best friend among the Democratic contenders, has a consolation prize: State-by-state endorsements from local union councils have provided him with a steady stream of good press -- and closed the door to union activists from other states who might want to help his rivals.
For instance, when the New Hampshire SEIU picked Edwards on Tuesday after a tumultuous decision-making process, stories about the endorsement ran in the Nashua Telegraph and the Concord Monitor. Even the famously conservative New Hampshire Union-Leader picked up the AP story (while running an editorial the same day criticizing Edwards' economic policy). Meanwhile, bloggers at the New York Times, the Boston Globe, MSNBC, The Atlantic and ABC Newsfollowed the development.
Unlike a national endorsement, which leads to heavy national coverage for one day and ground support with varying degrees of enthusiasm for the rest of the campaign (see Howard Dean, national SEIU's pick in 2004), the state council endorsements led to the media, both national and local, smiling on the Edwards campaign multiple times.
Edwards made his biggest splash on Oct. 15, the first day that state SEIU councils were allowed to make endorsements. He got the support of the politically savvy Iowa union, as well as nine other state councils. He easily overshadowed Sen. Barack Obama, who got a nod from his native Illinois and next-door Indiana, and was the only other candidate to collect endorsements that day.
Equally important, the national SEIU decreed that other state affiliates could only send members to campaign in another state if they agreed with that state's endorsement. So the New Hampshire endorsement means that its 9,000 members can get help from more muscular states, including California, the country's largest SEIU unit, and nearby Massachusetts. State councils in Illinois and Indiana -- as well as Wisconsin and the joint Missouri-Kansas council -- that picked Obama are blocked from flexing their organizational muscle in the Hawkeye State. So far, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn't picked up a single SEIU state endorsement, although New York is expected to end up in her column.
Chris Chafe, who took a leave of absence from his job as chief of staff at the union group Unite Here to become a senior adviser to the Edwards campaign, said the endorsements are not just about free media.
"For us, this is not just about a headline," he said. "The difference that state councils and the SEIU will make is bringing tremendous grassroots capacity mobilization [and a] professional political program."
Nevada, the last of the four early primary states to endorse, is still making its decision. (South Carolina has no SEIU members.) Spokeswoman Hilary Haycock said Clinton and Edwards met with members last weekend, and they're still trying to set up a meeting with Obama.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.