Can't Buy Me Love

Jeb Bush Needs More Than Endorsements

He's trending downward in polls, and his super-PAC's big ad spending doesn't appear to be helping in Iowa.

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Tuesday proved to be another telling day in the lackluster presidential campaign of Jeb Bush

While a new Quinnipiac poll showed the former Florida governor polling at just 4 percent in Iowa, Bush's team was busy touting its latest endorsement from a member of Congress. Yet the latter event, coming from little-known Michigan Representative Mike Bishop, did not exactly carry the heft required to eclipse the former. 

To be sure, Bush has among the healthiest portfolios among Republicans in the so-called endorsement primary that measures support with party insiders. The problem for Bush, however, is that such support means little in a year of political outsiders. To make matters worse, the relative paucity of elected officials and prominent political groups that have gotten behind Bush, compared to those that got behind his brother and other GOP nominees, highlights the extent to which his campaign has stalled.   

Including Tuesday's endorsement from Bishop, Bush has now received the backing of 26 members of the House of Representatives and three senators. He lacks a sitting governor's formal support. At the same point in the 2000 election—roughly 10 weeks from the Iowa caucuses—George W. Bush had the backing of 133 members of the House (including then-Speaker Dennis Hastert) and 24 senators, as well as 26 governors, according to data from James Madison University political scientist Marty Cohen, who co-wrote The Party Decides, a study of the endorsement primary.

“George W. Bush was in a far stronger position at this point in the race than his brother,” said David Karol, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and a co-author with Cohen. “There’s almost no comparison.”

The many early endorsements in 2000—along with huge financial advantages—helped George W. Bush clear the field, whereas the younger Bush finds himself in a race in which many candidates are vying for endorsements and key endorsers who are waiting to see who emerges intact from the fight before they loan names and organizations to candidates.

“The party is not really decided in effect yet,” Cohen said, comparing the tight GOP race to what the website FiveThirtyEight has calculated is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 447-to-2 lead over Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic endorsement primary.

Among 2016 Republicans, Jeb Bush is ahead in the endorsement primary—by FiveThirtyEight's weighting as well as a simple count of nods from current national officeholders—far eclipsing polling front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Along with Senator Ted Cruz, however, those outsider candidates have managed to secure endorsements from some influential figures who don't hold office but can help mobilize voters on their preferred issues—a group that the Party Decides authors find at least as powerful as elected support. Businessman Carl Icahn has tossed his support to Trump, for instance, and former General Electric CEO Jack Welch is officially backing Cruz. 

Karol ascribes Jeb Bush's slowness to lure high profile endorsers to being out-of-step with the base on key issues including immigration as well as to his personality.

“He’s just also not a compelling candidate,” he said. George W. Bush, by contrast, had “better political instincts and also more appeal, more personality.”

The organizational strength that Bush's team often uses to sell him to prospective endorsers has not sped up the process any. That infrastructure was supposed to be able to power him through the March states after rivals ran out of staff and money, doesn't much distinguish him anymore.

A super-PAC working on Bush's behalf has also failed to convince would-be endorsers through its massive advertising efforts. Since Sept. 1, Right to Rise has purchased 3,749 TV spots in Iowa TV markets at an estimated cost of more than $3 million, according to data compiled by the ad tracking firm Kantar/CMAG. This makes the super-PAC the largest ad buyer in the state by far. The next closest competitor (the pro-Bobby Jindal group Believe Again) had bought just half as much in Iowa before their candidate dropped out of the race.

Yet even as Right to Rise has poured millions into the race, endorsements for Bush have slowed, with only two national elected officials lending their names to his cause in November. Senator Marco Rubio, whom many election watchers see as Bush's chief rival for establishment support, racked up nine new endorsers this month, more than doubling his previous slate.

On the debate stage, where a strong performance could lure more high profile endorsements, Bush hasn't done himself any favors. 

“His performance in the debates is what was weak to say the least, and that made some people think twice,” said Cohen, of James Madison University.

The Bush team continues to emphasize the difference between this year's race and the one his brother ran.

“Our focus is on how Jeb's endorsements and support compare with the people he is currently running against for the presidency, among which is not his brother George,” said spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger.

The best hope for Bush, Cohen said, might be the fact that he continues to stay on top in the endorsement primary despite his challenges in the popular surveys.

“I’m a little surprised that he’s managed to pull some congressional endorsements in the last week of two,” he said. “Maybe his campaign does remain viable because of that.”

—John McCormick contributed to this article. 

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