The Endorsements that Matter — and Don’t


Bush collects high-profile backing he thought he needed, but voters don’t seem to care

by Brendan Kirby

In the year of the outsider, the insider Establishment endorsements so coveted by presidential candidates matter not a whit.

Jeb Bush has the backing of the most current and former members of Congress and governors, as well as former officials of his brother’s and father’s administrations. And if you look at his polling, it seems his endorsers are also about the only people voting for him.

By contrast, the ultimate outsider — Donald Trump — does not have a single endorsement from a sitting elected federal official or governor. He did, however, get a high-profile endorsement from Sarah Palin, another outsider. Other supporters are an eclectic cadre of businessmen, like investor Carl Icahn; activists, like social conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly and commentator Ann Coulter; and celebrities, like boxer Mike Tyson and football coach Mike Ditka.

Trump has the blessing of a motley crew of outsiders. And of course, he is romping in the polls.

Sen. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, has drawn support from the ranks of the most conservative current and former members of Congress. That includes Rep. Steve King of Iowa, known as the “Kingmaker,” and former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, two of the country’s strongest immigration hawks.

Sen. Marco Rubio is getting support from congressional Republicans both to the right and left of the average party member. The campaign scored a big coup when it won the support of House Benghazi committee Chairman and Tea Party favorite Trey Gowdy, for instance.

Rubio is closing in on Bush’s lead among representatives, senators and governors. Not helping much. He’s still well behind.

Nothing oozes Establishment more than 1996 nominee Bob Dole and former Majority Leader Eric Cantor, both of whom back Bush.

In such an anti-establishment year, the support of figures like Cantor — who suffered a humiliating primary defeat in 2014 — can have the opposite effect.

“The Cantor endorsement was not one Bush was probably particularly happy about, at lease form a public standpoint,” said Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

Yet most endorsements don’t hurt, and even this year they can help at the margins, analysts say.

Josh Putnam, who teaches political science at the University of Georgia and runs a blog devoted to the primary process, said few voters pick a candidate based on a single endorsement. But he said an accumulation of endorsements typically signals candidate strength.

“In a lot of years, the candidate who is able to get more endorsements usually does better,” he said.

Craig Shirley, who has chronicled Ronald Reagan’s career in several books, said no candidate in modern history has ever won a major party nomination with as little institutional support as Trump. The closest precedent, he said, is Reagan’s insurgent campaign against President Gerald Ford in 1976. Even then, Reagan couldn’t quite pull off the upset.

Hagle said the King endorsement is significant for Cruz in Iowa, both because he is from the state and his immigration record perfectly matches the mood of the Republican electorate this year. He pointed to another key endorsement — social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats. He has endorsed the last two Republican winners in Iowa and is plugged into a large base of voters.

“It is more along the lines of whether that person is going to work on your behalf” rather than just lending their name, Hagle said.

Shirley said well-respected leaders often are more influential for voters than national figures. “The closer the person doing the endorsing is to the people of that state, the more important it is,” he said. “It’s not a household name, but it means something to the people in that state.”

Shirley said timing and the unexpected are crucial. If Trump were to suddenly start picking up endorsements for Establishment figures, he said, that would signal that he is broadening his appeal.

If Rubio eclipses Bush’s endorsements among lawmakers, it could trigger a wave of endorsements that could at least help consolidate his position as the only viable alternative to Trump and Cruz. Unless it doesn’t, according to Wayne Steger, a DePaul University professor.

“There’s no Establishment consensus on any of these candidates,” he said. “They’re mostly undecided … When they divide like that, there’s no signal to donors.”