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March 06, 2012 11:51 AM Endorsements, Party Actors, and the 2012 Cycle

By Jonathan Bernstein

I linked to a couple of Matthew Dickinson’s posts about the nomination battle earlier today, and mentioned that I disagree with him on a bunch of stuff with respect to the presidential nomination process. Here’s one more.

Dickinson wrote in a post about Super Tuesday “misconceptions” that:

The Republicans Establishment is Closing Ranks Behind Romney.  Stop me if you’ve heard this before. On the heels of today’s endorsements of Romney by Eric Cantor and Tom Coburn, the “closing ranks” theme has once again been resurrected by the talking heads.  Are today’s endorsements really news?  According to the ongoing tally listed at TheHill website, Romney has been running away with the endorsement race since before January.  We don’t need two more to convince us that the “Party Establishment” wants Romney to win… Forgive me if I don’t get overly excited over two more endorsements.  I suppose at some point the “Party Decides” crowd can claim victory.  But it is going to ring pretty hollow, given events to date.

A few things. The minor one is that I don’t think it’s right to consider Cantor and Coburn just two more endorsements. There’s a difference between these two — who are among the most prominent elected officials with clear movement conservative credentials — and many of the others who have endorsed earlier. Okay, I might be a bit idiosyncratic about this, but way back in early December I declared Coburn one of five key endorsements to look for (along with the Huck, Nikki Haley, Jeb Bush, and DeMint). Why not Cantor — or Speaker Boehner, or George W. Bush, or some other better-known Republicans? I didn’t say it then, but the top party leadership and party elders generally, I believe, publicly endorse after it’s over, to ratify what’s happened. So, yeah, I think this one is worth a headline.

The second bit is that I don’t understand what Dickinson means by “establishment.” I’m sure Tom Coburn doesn’t think he’s an establishment Republican. Is he? If so, are there any well-known Republicans who are not?

But the main problem I have is Dickinson’s reference to “events to date.” It sure seems to me that events to date have been all about Mitt Romney wrapping up a very open nomination quickly and fairly easily. Not as easily as George W. Bush did in 2000 (when he had a much better record of endorsements). But to me, Romney’s nomination is quite comparable to the nominations of Kerry in 2004, Dole in 1996, and Dukakis in 1988, and a lot more certain a lot earlier than that of McCain last time around. That seems to very much fit a model in which party actors compete and coordinate on nominations and voters in primaries and caucuses ratify it, rather than a model in which candidates compete in a weak party environment and voters in primaries and caucuses determine the nomination. Yes, there’s been momentum and press effects and other stuff that has produced a few oddball primary and caucus results, but none of that has really, as far as I can see, done as much to shape the contest as has decisions by party actors. In particular, the party’s apparent lack of interest in Rick Santorum, seen through a lack of high-profile endorsements after Iowa and again after Colorado and Minnesota, appear to have been far more predictive than Santorum’s strong showing in those states.

No one believes — and I certainly don’t believe — that a “party decides” view of the nomination process rules out stray candidates winning the occasional primary or caucus. What matters is the nomination. And it sure looks to me as if the nomination has been over for a long time, exactly as those of us who push this view would have expected given most indications of party actor support.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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