Jeb and the Invisible Primary

In my dustup with Nate Cohn and a couple of other people yesterday, here and on Twitter, over the value or lack thereof of early presidential polls, I made the argument that we just don’t really have the kind of early non-polling data–official campaign contributions reports and lists of endorsements–to make judgments about the “invisible primary.” So we must, I argued, be getting them from polling data or just pulling them out of our butts.

Today at FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver and Harry Enten make a parallel point about elite endorsements, and use that to question whether Jeb Bush is really winning the Invisible Primary as so many observers assume.

[M]oney is unlikely to be Bush’s problem in this campaign, and cash may be a less valuable resource than another sort of currency in which he is lacking: the support of influential Republicans, like current senators and governors, especially those who publicly endorse a candidate. Historically, these endorsements have been the best proxy for support in the “invisible primary” and a leading indicator for which candidates may emerge victorious through the rough-and-tumble nomination race.

So far, Bush has won very few endorsements. No current Republican senators or governors have endorsed him, and only five members of the House of Representatives have done so, all from his home state of Florida.

They go on to note that Bush’s rivals are not exactly racking up early endorsements, either. But there’s no particular reason to assume that Bush is going to get the lion’s share of them later on.

And indeed, these two gimlit-eyed observers point to a possible precedent for Jeb ’16 that ought to make his supporters’ blood run cold:

GOP endorsements came fairly early in the 2008 campaign, but they were spread across several candidates. Still, the early leader in endorsements, John McCain, went on to win the nomination.

Meanwhile, the paltry endorsement total for Rudy Giuliani that year — at a time he was riding high in the polls and raising plenty of money — was an early sign of trouble for his campaign. If influential Republicans decide Jeb Bush is too liberal — that he’s more like Giuliani than Mitt Romney or McCain — he’ll have little shot at the nomination.

So don’t get too mesmerized with Jeb’s money numbers–which we’ll probably hear more about today–and forget that even with the best and most expensive ingredients, a dog food won’t sell if dogs don’t like it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.