The lack of consensus among Republican party leaders has dramatically shaped the presidential primary. This can be seen most clearly among Republican governors, senator, and members of the House. Few have endorsed a presidential candidate, and among those who have endorsed, there is no clear front-runner.
But there is a larger universe of party leaders outside Congress and governors’ mansions. A key part of that universe is state legislators. And they tell us something different about the race, particularly in Iowa. One key story is the under-appreciated strength of Ted Cruz.
Iowa has only six members of Congress and a governor. Only one, Rep. Steve King, has endorsed a candidate (Cruz). This gives the impression that the Republican party in Iowa has mostly stayed out of the race (although Gov. Terry Branstad has publicly called for Cruz’s defeat).
Now consider state legislative endorsements. We — Will Cubbison, Craig Goodman, Josh Putnam and Boris Shor, along with Dylan Dusseault — have been collecting Republican state legislative endorsements, including from former legislators, across the country. These endorsements are available here and will be updated continually throughout the 2016 election.
In contrast to more senior party leaders, a majority of current Republican state legislators in Iowa — 47 of 82 — have endorsed a candidate who is still in the race.
And the Iowa endorsements leader is clearly Cruz. He has 26 percent of the endorsements (12 total), while Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina have eight each (17 percent), Chris Christie has six (13 percent), John Kasich has two (4 percent), and Ben Carson, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump each have a single endorsement (1 percent).
Cruz’s endorsement lead is consistent with the conventional wisdom that he has underlying strength in the Iowa caucus, despite Trump’s apparent lead in the race.
Interestingly, retired state legislators have made a different decision. Most have endorsed the so-called “establishment” candidates such as Kasich, Christie and, especially, Bush. This could be a consequence of increasing state polarization, with more moderate legislators being replaced by more extreme ones.
Of course, there are other party activists who also serve as important signals for undecided Iowa Caucus participants, and the TPD coauthors specifically argue that these are also valid party insiders. For example, Cruz secured the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, who is the president and CEO of The Family Leader, a prominent Iowa organization.
Arguably, current state legislators should have the most valuable endorsements to offer. Their relationships with other officials, donors, interest groups and friendly journalists should be the most active. If so, this could work to Cruz’s advantage.
The point here is not that endorsements determine election outcomes, or to forecast a Cruz victory in Iowa. But looking at state legislators changes our perspective of a party sitting on the sidelines. State legislators show us a Republican Party actively trying to decide.
Boris Shor is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Will Cubbison is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University. Josh Putnam is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Georgia. Craig Goodman is an Assistant Professor in the School of Arts & Sciences at University of Houston-Victoria.