Washington — When Iowa state legislator Matt Windschitl endorsed Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal this month in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, the Jindal campaign was quick to spread the word, posting an announcement on its blog and sending out the news via Twitter.
Windschitl’s endorsement makes up a small slice of what’s sometimes called the invisible primary, where candidates seek the support of elected officials, activists and other influential members of their political party to build momentum toward winning the nomination.
The corralling of endorsements may lack the sizzle of big rallies and speeches, TV debates or even slick campaign commercials, but it is significant nonetheless, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“Most people who are not plugged in to politics would say the opposite,” Sabato said. “The common phrase you hear is, ‘I don’t care. I could care less. Who do these people think they are?’
“In fact, for the people who actually vote in caucuses and primaries, endorsements are critical signals that they use because, remember, they don’t have party identifications” to rely on, Sabato said. “That’s the problem with partisan primary contests: They’re all Republicans or they’re all Democrats, so you need other cues, and endorsements are one of those cues.”
Endorsements “create kind of a cycle,” said David O’Connell, a political scientist at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
“You get media attention and additional financial support, and that’s going to lead to more media attention and more financial support,” he said.
“It’s a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said Charlie Cook, producer of the Cook Political Report in Washington.
That effect particularly comes into play when the imprimatur comes from an interest group such as the National Rifle Association, he said.
“If the NRA endorses you, then for the substantial number of Republican primary voters that put a high value on the Second Amendment, that means that you’re A-OK,” Cook said.
It is Jindal’s vigorous defense of gun rights that helped him win Windschitl’s blessing, the legislator said. The two met at a Second Amendment rally in Iowa two or three years ago, he said.
“He’s got the right vision and the right attitude to be commander in chief,” Windschitl said, adding that he also is impressed by Jindal’s strong anti-abortion views and his management of state government in the face of challenges posed by economic downturns and natural disasters.
“He’s got the depth, knowledge and skill set to be able to govern through any crisis that might face us,” he said.
A conservative Republican who serves as speaker pro tem of the Iowa House, Windschitl said he has had “low-level” discussions with the Jindal campaign about how he might contribute to the nomination effort.
“It is an opportunity to be helpful to potentially the next president of the United States on a very personal, one-to-one level,” he said.
Iowa kicks off the nomination process with its Feb. 1 caucuses, and Jindal has campaigned heavily there, participating in numerous town hall meetings with voters. His nomination strategy depends to a considerable degree on his ability to make a strong showing in Iowa.
“His chances are good,” Windschitl said, “but his campaign will have to continue to work the grass roots and move forward.”
If Jindal succeeds, it will be in spite of dismal results to date at both the state and national levels in opinion polls, which show him consistently scoring in the low single digits and lagging behind most of the crowded Republican field. And he also will have to overcome a so far lackluster performance in the invisible primary.
“One member of the Iowa state Legislature is not very much” in the endorsement competition, said Hans Noel, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington and co-author of the 2008 book, “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform.”
“Of course, it starts with one person, so that is not trivial,” Noel said.
By “the party,” Noel said, he and his co-authors mean “the people who engage on a repeated, regular basis in the tasks of the party, especially the task of choosing nominees and helping them get elected.”
That most obviously includes elected officials. But Noel said it also can include, depending on the party, donors, members of the clergy, leaders of advocacy groups such as the NRA or the Sierra Club, tea party organizers and labor unionists.
“All those people are not formally the party, but they may be trying to push the party in a certain direction,” he said.
Beyond the boost to a candidate’s credibility, an endorsement can provide access to a network of friends, supporters and campaign volunteers linked to the endorser or can reassure other party movers and shakers that the candidate is legitimate.
“One endorsement isn’t really what matters,” Noel said. “What matters is who gets the lion’s share.”
Jindal’s campaign consultant, Taylor Teepell, said Jindal has not actively sought endorsements to help his chances in Iowa. “If you have to convince someone, that’s not an endorsement,” he said.
“Getting Matt’s endorsement was great,” he said, “and those are the type of endorsements I love.”
More should follow as Jindal becomes better known, Teepell said.
The data-driven political website FiveThirtyEight says that when the elites of a party “have reached a consensus on the best candidate, rank-and-file voters have usually followed” in nomination contests over the past few decades.
As a rough measure of Republicans’ performance in the invisible primary, FiveThirtyEight is tracking endorsements by members of Congress and governors.
The site awards 10 points for an endorsement by a governor, five for an endorsement by a U.S. senator and one for an endorsement by a U.S. representative.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is leading in the tally, with 34 points, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is second, with 25 (as of Friday). Jindal has no points — although neither does Donald Trump, the real estate developer and reality TV celebrity who is well out in front in the polls.
But as the many historical charts assembled by FiveThirtyEight show, a key variable in the consensus-building is its timing.
In some years, such as 2000 for both Democrats, who eventually nominated Al Gore, and Republicans, who chose George W. Bush, the winner-to-be had pulled well ahead of his rivals in attracting endorsements by this point in the election cycle, a half-year or so before the Iowa caucuses.
But in other years, such as 1988 (George H.W. Bush) and 2012 (Mitt Romney) for the Republicans, the eventual nominee had not built a commanding lead in endorsements by this point.
The Republican cycle is shaping up like 1988 and 2012, with Jeb Bush’s point total low relative to the leaders in other years a half-year before the Iowa caucuses.
“If those endorsements are not taking place in this initial primary period, they lose their effectiveness,” O’Connell said. “If they’re coming later, they may not be as influential as in previous campaigns.”
The failure of any one candidate to build a lead so far this year leaves open the possibility that any of the 17 Republican contenders could end up as the endorsement champion.
The historical charts clearly demonstrate that as the race comes closer to the party’s national convention, the candidate who eventually is chosen picks up endorsements at a rapidly increasing pace and dominates the invisible primary.
But, Cook asked, “Is it the cart or the horse?”
“Yes, the winning candidate usually has the most endorsements,” he said. “But did they win because they got endorsed, or did they get endorsed because they were winning?”
Despite that ambiguity — and despite Trump, who could rewrite the book on endorsements this year — Cook said endorsements “are important because they are a reflection of what’s going on.”
“If somebody has no endorsements,” he said, “a lot of times, it’s just an indication of a lack of viability.”
Elizabeth Crisp, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog/.