2016 Innovations

Trump Masters the Art of the Non-Endorsement

Establishment heavyweights are showing support for the Republican front-runner without fully backing him.

Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Holds Iowa Rally
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

In the run up to the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump has mastered earning the non-endorsement endorsement, a show of support by politicians who stop short of offering unqualified backing for the billionaire. 

Last week, Iowa's Republican governor, Terry Branstad, told reporters that he wants Trump's GOP rival, Senator Ted Cruz, “defeated” in the caucuses.

The state's Republican Party chairman, Jeff Kaufmann, introduced Trump at a rally in Muscatine on Sunday in a similar fashion. “I don’t want any ambiguity whatsoever: If you vote for him,” Kaufmann said, “the Republican Party of Iowa and this Republican chair will be behind him one thousand percent.”

Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley joined the half-hearted chorus over the weekend, introducing Trump at a rally in Pella by saying he wanted the front-runner “to know that I appreciate his support for me and, most importantly, for Iowa being first in the nation.”

“We have an opportunity once again to make America great again,” Grassley added, reciting Trump's campaign slogan. The packed crowd of hundreds roared in approval.

Yet Trump wasn't officially endorsed by Branstad, Kaufmann, or Grassley, who will appear with Senator Marco Rubio of Florida later this week. 

For Trump, however, the non-endorsement show of support is a win-win: It allows him to make the case that he's increasingly more likely to become the party's nominee while protecting him from attacks that he's straying from being an anti-establishment political outsider, a charge Cruz has leveled in recent days.

Recent polls suggest that Trump has retaken the lead over Cruz in Iowa and that he maintains a dominant national lead. Trump has not received a single endorsement from a current member of Congress, but that didn't stop him from attacking Cruz at a weekend rally in Muscatine for a lack of support from members of the Senate. 

“Everybody hates him,” Trump said at the rally. “Not one United States senator has endorsed him, not one. And Senator Grassley yesterday was with me and introduced us. What a wonderful guy he is, by the way.”

Hedging Bets

Trump isn't the only Republican to attract support from non-endorsers. In addition to a scheduled joint appearance with Grassley, Rubio was joined on Monday in Des Moines by Iowa freshman Senator Joni Ernst, who parlayed a military record, high-profile endorsements, and a folksy style to a 9-percentage-point win in her first campaign for the Senate, in 2014.

Both Grassley and Ernst insisted that their appearances didn’t amount to endorsements and that they would remain neutral in the 11-candidate Republican caucus.

“Joni Ernst is extremely popular here in Iowa, and the same goes for Chuck Grassley,” said Jack Whitver, a Republican state senator from suburban Des Moines who is the chairman of Rubio’s Iowa campaign. “Any time you can get them to come to a rally, it’s a big plus.”

Whitver demurred when asked whether the high-profile not-quite-endorsements would help Rubio or Trump, noting that Iowa voters have plenty of chances to see the candidates themselves up close.

For Trump, the Grassley appearance confers a measure of mainstream acceptance on a candidate who has touted his outsider status. During his introduction, the six-term senator noted Trump’s support for him. Federal Election Commission records don’t show any donations from Trump or his companies to Grassley’s campaigns.

“This is a great guy, this is a great guy,” Trump said after summoning Grassley on stage with him at the Pella event. “He’s respected by everybody.”

Rubio endorsed Ernst in the five-way primary for the Republican nomination for the Senate seat vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin in 2014. Ernst went on to win the general election in a campaign that stressed biographical elements such as an upbringing castrating hogs and wearing plastic bread bags over her worn-down shoes.

On Monday, Rubio, the son of immigrants from Cuba, sought to connect his biography to Ernst’s.

“Joni and I both come from humble roots,” he told about 150 people at a rally in Des Moines. “We both had one nice pair of shoes. What makes this country special is that a little girl who grew up with bread bags on her shoes and the son of a bartender and a maid can serve this country at its highest level.”

Ernst, who hasn't appeared with other candidates in Iowa this year, singled out Rubio in her introductory speech as the candidate who would take on the Islamic State terrorist group.

“He knows what needs to be done to keep our country safe from the threats that are out there,” Ernst said, noting that they serve in the Senate together.

Fielding questions from reporters afterward, Rubio said he respects that Ernst had pledged not to endorse in the Republican primary. He also offered praise for Grassley. The senior senator plans to appear with Rubio at an event Saturday, according to Rubio’s campaign.

“We certainly think highly of both of the senators in the state,” Rubio said.

New Paradigm

Donna Hoffman, who heads the University of Northern Iowa's political science department, said that Trump has been able to spin his lack of endorsements “as a badge of honor.”

“He can use it to make the case to supporters as proof that he really would shake things up in D.C. and that makes those politicians nervous, so of course they won't endorse him,” Hoffman said. “Cruz's lack of them furthers the notion that his colleagues in the Senate don't hold him in high regard.”

While Cruz has not received endorsements from any Senate colleagues, 17 members of the House have given him the nod. Rubio, meanwhile, has racked up endorsements from four senators and 24 House members. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush bests both of them, with public endorsements from five senators and 26 House members.

Tallying non-endorsement endorsements, however, is much trickier. 

“It's a new move the coaches of Trump invented and probably patented,” quipped Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University. “The ‘Reverse-Non-Endorsement’ is as slick as Trump.”

It's just one more way that Trump, a real-estate developer and reality TV host, has upended traditional campaign norms this cycle. “The lack of political endorsements is part of Trump's brand,” Schmidt noted.

(Corrects spelling of Jeff Kaufmann's name starting in third paragraph.)
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