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Days Before Iowa Caucuses, Battle over Endorsements Intensifies

Republican candidates aren’t just jockeying for the hearts and minds of Iowa caucusgoers, but they’re also battling over endorsements.
Image: Donald Trump, Sarah Palin
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, left, endorses Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a rally at the Iowa State University, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Mary Altaffer / AP

With just days left before the first votes of the 2016 presidential campaign are cast in Iowa, Republican candidates are engaged in an escalating game of one-upmanship when it comes to seeking and rolling out endorsements -- all in hopes of reaching the hearts and minds of those caucus voters.

In the past several days, GOP candidates have unveiled high-profile supporters that they hope will persuade the undecided and perhaps find an eleventh-hour edge in a tight race.

What's more is that endorsements are part of a campaign’s political strategy and often emphasize the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump in particular had a busy week, announcing a series of influential characters that appeal to targeted demographics.

In Iowa, Trump recently announced high-profile support from conservative figureheads like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. On Tuesday, controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio added his name -- and record of tough immigration enforcement -- to the list of Trump endorsers.

Those endorsements have strategic implications. In Arpaio, Trump gets a tough-on-immigration supporter to bolster his own positions on the issue while countering one of Ted Cruz's biggest champions, Iowa Congressman Steve King - one of the most outspoken critics of immigration in Congress.

With the Falwell endorsement, Trump gained the official backing of a well respected evangelical name, a move that could push Christian conservatives toward him, and away from Cruz. The evangelical vote is critical in the Iowa caucus as 55 percent of Republican caucus participants identify as evangelical. And Palin, a Tea Party fixture, bolsters his outsider and conservative credentials.

Trump's play for conservative evangelicals was a blow to the bloc of Republican candidates running their campaign by appealing to the Christian base, including Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee. But it is most damaging to Cruz, Trump’s closest competitor in Iowa. Cruz had already received the support of Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the The Family Leader who has a significant following there.

But needing another shot of energy and working to remind voters that he is the true Christian in the race, Cruz responded to the Falwell endorsement by unveiling his own big-name evangelical. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, threw their weight behind Cruz Tuesday, perhaps giving comfort to evangelicals who aren’t supportive of Trump and also a sign how divided evangelicals in the Hawkeye State.

While it's not clear if a political endorsement translates into actual votes, endorsements do matter. It gives candidates a positive news story, and history shows that the winner of the primary in modern politics has won the most number of endorsements by party officials.

But in this Republican primary, where the conventional means little (for example: the leading candidates have spent the least amount on advertising), the impact of support by the party elite might not mean what it used to.

Trump, for instance, hasn’t received the official backing of any current or former members of Congress, senators or governors – a traditional indicator of electoral success.

Instead he’s rolling out the support of celebrities, entertainers and unelected conservatives.

His backers include pro-baller Dennis Rodman, former NFL player Terrell Owens, former boxer Mike Tyson, former basketball coach Bobby Knight, pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan, actor Steve Baldwin, singer Ted Nugent, singer Wayne Newtown, John Wayne’s daughter and conservative commentator Ann Coulter.

Cruz, who has not gained the support of any of his colleagues in the Senate, is also turning elsewhere to bolster his bona fides. Conservative media mogul Glenn Beck and fellow Texan Rick Perry, the former governor of the Lone Star State, is behind Cruz.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who entered the presidential race cursed with high expectations to coast through the nomination process to an easy victory, racked up a significant number of endorsements early in his campaign. Bush’s support among national elected officials is large – totaling more than four dozen former federally elected officials and more than two dozen currently in office. But as actual voting nears, his endorsements have slowed save for South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham who dropped out of the presidential race in December.

Meanwhile, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, has generated the support of several of his senate colleagues and nearly two dozen members of the House of Representatives, especially the ones who are younger and represent a younger generation of politician. His endorsements are emblematic of his entire campaign theme of new leadership.

While she has no plans on endorsing before Iowa, a young-dynamic insurgent freshman Sen. Joni Ernst who won a five-way Republican primary before she won her senate seat 2014, appeared with Rubio this week. . Ernst hasn’t appeared with any other candidate but her office hasn’t ruled it out, saying she would if “we can fit it into (the) schedule.”

Rubio is also winning the support among the practical, those who ponder electability and rationality.

Iowa’s largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, wrote, “We endorse him because he represents his party’s best hope,” Former New York Governor and presidential candidate George Pataki said he’s the one who can beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in a general election – another major theme of Rubio’s campaign.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich, two candidates whose strategy is to put most of their time and resources into the more moderate primary state of New Hampshire, have focused on obtaining local endorsements, hoping to influence locals there.

Christie’s list of endorsements in New Hampshire is long and Kasich’s while Kasich’s is too. Their strategy is paying dividends as the two major Boston newspapers, both of which reach New Hampshire voters, split their endorsements this week. The Boston Globe said a vote for Kasich “would deal a blow to the demagogic candidates running on campaign simplicities.” The Boston Herald backed Christie.

In his campaign, Kasich is also touting his time as head of the Budget Committee where he helped to usher in a balanced budget. To highlight that, Kasich has secured the backing of two dozen of his former colleagues in the House.

Almost as important as the endorsement is the anti-endorsement. And Trump and Cruz – the frontrunners with targets on their backs - appear to be winning that race.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said he would not endorse before the caucuses, but he told reporters last week that Cruz would be "very damaging to our state."

Trump has received the most public backlash. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, tweeted a list of questions to Trump that might as well have been in a rival's folder of opposition research.

He asked Trump why he previously supported single payer health care, "hate(d) the concept of guns," proposed a "$6trillion tax hike," and touted "many affairs w/ married women."

Sasse will campaign with Rubio and Cruz this week.

While Trump enjoys the support of some celebrities mentioned above, he has also drawn the public ire of others. A campaign called “StopHateDumpTrump has been launched and is supported by more than a hundred celebrities and activists, including actress Cynthia Nixon and feminist attorney Gloria Steinem.

Despite Trump’s detractors, his supporters come from unlikely places. As a candidate who has shunned the grit of hand-shaking, selfie-taking, baby-kissing retail politics, the owner of an Iowa pizza chain that has become synonymous for Republican retail politics, endorsed Trump, too.

While it may not influence any votes, it forced Trump to stop at a Pizza Ranch.