What was NARAL thinking?

Earlier this week, the management of NARAL Pro-Choice America decided to publicly endorse Barack Obama for President, and touched off a firestorm of criticism within its ranks. Many members saw this as a betrayal of Hillary Clinton, who has engaged NARAL for decades, while others wondered at the stupidity of taking sides with the finish line in sight. It provided an object lesson for advocacy groups on timing when engaging in the electoral process:

With the clock running down on a long-fought primary, NARAL Pro-Choice America leaders sent state affiliates reeling this week by endorsing Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. It was seen as a gratuitous slap in the face to a longtime ally, and it sparked a fear even closer to home: that the move will alienate donors loyal to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Many on this week’s conference call were stunned on learning the news, making urgent pleas for the group to remain neutral until after the June 3 Democratic primaries.

“It’s created a firestorm,” said NARAL Pro-Choice New York President Kelli Conlin, who was on the conference call. “Everyone was mystified … saying, ‘What is the upside for the organization? And, frankly, [there was] a lot of concern about the donor base. … There was real concern there would be a backlash.”

There was a backlash, and it was swift, starting with NARAL’s own website. At last count, there were more than 3,300 comments in an electronic chat about the endorsement, the overwhelming majority of them negative. “Shame shame shame!” read one, with many correspondents threatening never to support NARAL financially again. “No more donations from me!!!” wrote another.

Of course, a loss of support for NARAL would give me no heartache, as I oppose their agenda entirely.  They certainly were going to support the eventual Democratic nominee anyway, regardless of which candidate prevailed.  Still, the incompetence that drove this decision seems striking enough for closer review.

First, advocacy groups should avoid primary fights in any case, especially one so closely associated with one particular party as NARAL.  There is little doubt that any of the proclaimed Democratic candidates in the race would have supported NARAL’s platform in its entirety, so the organization really has no dog in the fight as to which one gets nominated.  Where that is less true, advocacy organizations usually get involved much earlier in the process, looking for the candidate that most closely matches their policies, such as on taxation, energy, national security, labor, world hunger, and so on.

NARAL picked the worst time to make an endorsement.  Instead of picking someone early, they chose Obama with just three weeks left to go before the end of the primaries.  Did they think they could help him in Puerto Rico, or believe him in danger of losing the nomination?  What practical effect would their endorsement have on his ability to collect votes in the handful of contests remaining?

Not much, but obviously that wasn’t their motivation.  They wanted to send a message to Hillary to get out of the race now, rather than ride out the short string of primaries left.  NARAL wants to show some muscle in the party’s operations, and doesn’t mind throwing Hillary under the bus to do so.  Instead, they have enraged their base of women who have seen Hillary as their champion both in this race and on the mission of NARAL itself — and see her opponent as an Obama-come-lately, an ally but certainly not someone who has done the trench work that Hillary has done over a long period of years.

Endorsements are all about timing.  Like John Edwards’ endorsement of Obama, which came a week after Edwards’ state went to the polls, NARAL waited far too late to have any real effect on the race, but so early as to kneecap itself politically.  They may have gained a nominal influence with Obama, but they have lost a lot of ground with their membership, who may start looking for more intelligent leadership for the future.