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Once again, Ted Cruz has an under-appreciated strength in New Hampshire

Duane and Joyce Cate leave their polling place after voting in Monroe, N.H., on Feb. 9  during the New Hampshire primary. (Herb Swanson/EPA)

They might not make national headlines, but local endorsements in presidential primaries matter. According to the influential book “The Party Decides,” such endorsements reveal party elites trying to come to a decision about which candidate they should mutually support. They are leading indicators of vote — and delegate — outcomes. In many ways, they are better at predicting how the race will turn out than opinion polls.

As we’ll explain below, in New Hampshire, Ted Cruz has built up a commanding lead of these endorsements — especially compared with Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, which indicates a reservoir of strength that current polling might be missing.

This echoes our post from a week ago (before the caucus), in which we argued that Ted Cruz’s underappreciated strength in Iowa endorsements — he led the field with more than a quarter of the sitting legislators’ endorsements — could help him outperform the polling average. And indeed, he did.

On the other hand, there are many endorsements for candidates like Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie. The message is that of a Republican party in New Hampshire deeply divided between a more moderate wing supporting Fiorina and Christie, and a more libertarian wing that now is owned by Cruz (and was for Paul, when he was running).

There’s something about New Hampshire

New Hampshire has an unusual state legislature, with the most members of all 50 states; 252 of its 424 are Republicans. This means there is a large pie of potential endorsements for presidential candidates to divide, and a very high degree of idiosyncrasy, since each legislator represents has only about 3,300 constituents. That means that local legislative candidates can tightly tailor their appeal to voters — far more so than, say, than can a California state senator or a Vermont member of Congress, each of whom must represent upwards of 600,000 constituents.

New Hampshire’s Republican members of Congress — Sen.Kelly Ayotte and Rep. Frank Guinta — have stayed on the sidelines, as is true of nearly all of Congress to date. This is highly unusual compared with past primary campaigns, where they have quickly endorsed and backed a usually establishment candidate.

But a surprising number of the state legislators have thrown themselves behind a candidate: 42 percent of the current Republican state legislators in New Hampshire have endorsed one of the current candidates, which is similar to 51 percent in Iowa. In the rest of the country, only 10 percent of state legislative Republicans have endorsed. The pressure of impending statewide decision days (a caucus and a primary) pushed an unusually high proportion of these state’s elected Republican officials to decide who they should back.

How have the endorsements changed since Iowa?

Since the Iowa caucuses, as we know, Sen. Rand Paul, former senator Rick Santorum and former governor Mike Huckabee have exited the presidential primary race. Paul had the most endorsements in New Hampshire, with 44; Santorum and Huckabee were scarcely noticed, gathering less than a single handful of endorsements. Some of Paul’s endorsers have moved to Cruz while the others have stayed out. If the candidates who’ve left had stayed in, a majority of New Hampshire Republicans would have endorsed — as we know, because they had actively trumpeted their endorsements before their candidates dropped out.

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Compare and contrast: What’s changed since Iowa

So what are seeing in New Hampshire, and how does it differ from Iowa? In the endorsement race, Carly Fiorina is in the lead. Of the politicians who are leading in national polls, Ted Cruz leads the Granite State’s endorsement race. He has endorsements from both social conservatives and libertarians, including the libertarian members of the “Free State Project” — a group that moved into the state to transform its politics, 18 of whom have been elected to the lower chamber.  

Some legislators who were formerly Paul supporters have switched to Ted Cruz (see also here and here). During 2015, Cruz had finished second to Paul at a New Hampshire Libertarian Convention, and earned more than 70 percent approval from a newly formed NH conservative alliance two signs that he might do better than expected in the primary.

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The chart above describes the trend over time in state legislative endorsements for the candidates currently running in New Hampshire. Some candidates like Christie started slowly and built up their endorsements over time, while others like Fiorina and Cruz started off fairly early and built on their earlier leads.

Unlike Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio has gotten only three endorsements from New Hampshire legislators — which is astonishing from a high-profile candidate. In New Hampshire, his  comparatively moderate conservatism might have been expected to be attractive. This might indicate deeper problems for the Rubio campaign that they have not been able to attract influential party insider support even in fertile political soil.

As was true in Iowa, Donald Trump also lags in endorsements from both current and former members of the state legislature. Right up until voting began, the New York businessman led in New Hampshire polls, as he did in Iowa — but the lack of support from state legislators may suggest another disappointing finish.  

Of course, voting in the primary does not require the same high level of commitment that caucusing does. New Hampshire’s primary could tell us whether Trump has enough organization to mobilize voters in the more common primaries.

Of the non-front runners, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie have done best. The first of these is somewhat explained by her temporary poll bump following solid debate performances in the early fall. Chris Christie has been one of the most active campaigners in New Hampshire. Part of what he has been doing is hoovering up endorsements, which may give his presidential campaign a strong finish in the New Hampshire primary. As of today, Christie has held the second-most campaign appearances in the state. That  appears to be paying off, at least if we’re counting by endorsements. In fact, when you include retired state legislators, Christie ties Ted Cruz for the endorsement lead.

By contrast, Ohio’s Gov. Kasich has won very few legislators’ endorsements. However, Kasich has been endorsed by six out of New Hampshire’s newspapers — the exception was the Manchester Union-Leader, which endorsed Christie — as well as other influential newspapers such as the Boston Globe and the New York Times.

New Hampshire’s state legislators’ endorsements do not reflect current polling results. Sen. Marco Rubio, who finished better than expected in the Iowa Republican caucuses, appears to be surging in the New Hampshire polls, but has fewer state legislative endorsements than every other active

Endorsements through February 8th. Polling Average from Huffington Post on February 8th.

Endorsements through Feb. 8. Polling Average from Huffington Post on Feb. 8.

So who do party elites support?

If party nomination contests are more about party elites deciding who is an acceptable candidate to the majority of its factions, then endorsements signal to us the state of this insider’s race. New Hampshire is telling us that the Republican party is still deeply divided internally, and no candidate yet has a commanding lead. But are Iowa and New Hampshire outliers? We plan to continue to study the endorsement race to find out.

Boris Shor is visiting assistant professor of government at Georgetown University; find him on Twitter @bshor. Will Cubbison is a PhD student in the department of political science at George Washington University. Craig Goodman is assistant professor in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Houston-Victoria; he tweets @cgoodmantx. Josh Putnam is a lecturer in the department of political science at the University of Georgia; find him on Twitter @FHQ.