The pursuit of endorsements from Iowa’s key GOP politicians creates a new dynamic for presidential candidates. Unlike the 2008 Caucus, when Steve King was the only major elected office holder who offered an endorsement, Iowa has four top Republican officials who could play a key role in 2012. Last week’s news that Senator Charles Grassley plans to endorse a candidate as early as this summer has campaigns angling for his affection.
For those of you who think endorsements are overhyped and overrated by the media, I agree with you. In fact, I wrote a column for a different website last year entitled, “The Overhyped and Overrated Value of Endorsements.” Generally speaking, a politician publicly declaring his support of another politician has little effect on the outcome.
There are exceptions, of course. Sarah Palin’s endorsements certainly helped some of the candidates she backed in the 2010 GOP primaries. Ted Kennedy’s support of Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton dealt a devastating blow to the Clinton machine. Likewise, Colin Powell choosing Obama over John McCain helped reassure some moderates who were unsure of Obama’s foreign policy stances.
On the other hand, some endorsements are worthless. Chet Culver decided to lend his support to Obama, but not until a full month after the Iowa Caucus. Few in the remaining primary states knew who Culver was or cared about his opinion. When Tom Tancredo dropped out of the 2008 race and endorsed Mitt Romney, the only thing Romney gained was Tancredo’s campaign debt. He was barely registering in the polls and Tancredo’s top Iowa people, like Bill Salier and Heath Hill, immediately backed Fred Thompson.
The key to an impactful endorsement is whether or not it comes with the full political weight of the endorser. Will the endorser’s staff, advisors, donors, and top volunteers also get involved? Will the endorser make calls to activists and try to sway their opinion? Those are questions the endorsee must ask or it is not worth their time and effort.
With that in mind, here are the four key Iowa GOP politicians that presidential candidates will be courting over the next several months, who they might back, who they probably won’t back, and what their endorsement could mean.
SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY
Who he is likely to endorse: A front-running, fiscal conservative. Grassley wants to insure the Iowa Caucus maintains its first-in-the-nation status, so he wants to back a candidate who can win beyond Iowa. It will depend on what the polls are showing, but I envision someone like Romney, Pawlenty or Gingrich.
Who he likely will not endorse: I do not envision Grassley getting behind Tea Party favorites like Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin.
Potential impact: Significant. Grassley has a large, statewide coalition of devoted supporters. He also has tremendous fundraising ability. If he gets his machine behind a candidate, it could provide a big boost.
CONGRESSMAN STEVE KING
Who he is likely to endorse: Michelle Bachmann. They are close allies in the House, with similar political philosophies. Bachmann headlined a fundraiser for King last year and they are spearheading GOP efforts to repeal ObamaCare. If Bachmann does not run, other possibilities include Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Tim Pawlenty.
Who he likely will not endorse: Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour. Congressman King’s key issue is immigration. Huckabee’s support of the Dream Act disqualifies him. King is also a stalwart social conservative. Daniels and Barbour have openly expressed a desire to push social issues to the background.
Potential impact: Significant. King feels he could have helped Fred Thompson much more in the 2008 race if he had endorsed earlier. He plans to make his decision sooner this time around. There are a lot of caucus votes to be had in King’s conservative-rich western Iowa district and his supporters deeply respect him. Steve King’s backing could make the difference in a tight race.
GOVERNOR TERRY BRANSTAD
Who he is likely to endorse: No one, for now. At this point, Branstad plans to remain neutral, but he is leaving the door open to endorsing someone “very late”, according to spokesperson Tim Albrecht. On the campaign trail, Branstad often spoke of Mitch Daniels’ success in reforming Indiana and some of his plans for Iowa follow Daniels’ blueprint. My best guess is Daniels is Branstad’s top choice right now, with Tim Pawlenty second. Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, and Mitt Romney all campaigned for Branstad. Sarah Palin endorsed him in the primary. If one of those five is polling near the top in the final weeks of the race, Branstad might feel the need to lend a helping hand.
Who he likely will not endorse: Mike Huckabee. He called Branstad a “dear friend” last year and they have a longstanding relationship. However, out of loyalty to Branstad’s GOP primary opponent, Bob Vander Plaats, Huckabee did not endorse Branstad for the 2010 general election. I doubt Branstad will overlook that slight. Likewise, any candidate who only runs a halfhearted Iowa campaign will not receive Branstad’s backing.
Potential impact: Negligible. No one knows better how to win an election in Iowa than Terry Branstad. His 12-0 record speaks for itself. Branstad’s political operation could greatly help someone in the Iowa Caucus. However, if he sticks to his plan of not endorsing until very late in the race, it might be too late to change a lot of minds.
BOB VANDER PLAATS (I know, he has never been an elected official, but Bob has campaigned non-stop for a decade. Whether he likes the title or not, BVP is a professional politician.)
Who he is likely to endorse: Mike Huckabee. If the 2008 Iowa Caucus winner runs, it is highly unlikely his 2008 state chairman would support anyone else. If Huckabee does not run, Vander Plaats and his FAMiLY Leader organization will back a candidate who openly talks about his faith and puts social issues at the forefront. Those could include Bachmann, Pawlenty, or Santorum. He also has a good relationship with Newt Gingrich, so that is another possibility.
Who he likely will not endorse: Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour. Bad blood remains between the Huckabee and Romney camps. Daniels and Barbour’s suggestions of having a “big tent” party will not endear them to Vander Plaats’ group.
Potential impact: Very significant. Vander Plaats current 99 county tour is attracting sizeable crowds and he is building a large statewide organization of social conservatives. The math tells the story. Over 90,000 Republicans voted for Vander Plaats in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. Huckabee won the 2008 Iowa Caucus by 9 points, with only 35,000 votes. If Vander Plaats can turn out his flock for one candidate, it will be the deciding factor in the race.
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