Better than money or polls or media attention, the number of endorsements a presidential candidate receives is the best predictor of primary success, political scientists say. And although pre-primary endorsements in the GOP presidential race have come at a slower pace this election season than in the past, that's a good sign for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has a wide endorsement edge over his opponents.
Romney leads the Republican field both in the number and the geographic variety of his endorsements, demonstrating, experts say, that he may have the unifying power that the party needs. "Endorsements are essentially signaling the willingness of a party to coalesce behind a candidate," says John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University. "So far, Romney's winning the endorsement battle."
Less than a week after receiving the support of his would-have-been-contender New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie, Romney announced another round of endorsements on Monday, from three Republican congressmen from North Carolina, along with Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Ed Whitfield. To date, he's announced the support of nearly two dozen congressmen, three senators and three state governors. Others in Congress have also unofficially vowed their support, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the presidential race in August, has also joined his team. [Read more about Pawlenty's endorsement.]
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now placing third in polls, has about half the support that Romney does from members of Congress. And the party's leaders been even more reluctant to throw their support behind Romney's other top contender, businessman Herman Cain.
Things should start accelerating in terms of endorsements, especially since this year's unpredictable GOP field finally appears to be set, says Marty Cohen, a political science professor at James Madison University and co-author of The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform.
Historically, by this time in the election cycle, Cohen says, the Republican establishment choice has usually been clear, like in 1999, for example, with George W. Bush. With the exception of those who had a serious reason for not supporting the candidate, most prominent party members would have already coalesced around the presumed frontrunner.
But this year is different.According to David Karol, a University of Maryland political science professor and another co-author of The Party Decides, there have been no "safe choices" this year for GOP members. "It's an important political decision for those making endorsements. They don't want to make a mistake," Karol says. "Part of the reason that people have been holding back is that this has been a confusing year." [See a photo slideshow of the current 2012 GOP field.]
With other candidates losing their early hype, Romney, Cohen says, is now closer to making the race seem like "a fait accompli." He's also showing that unlike Cain, who has few major supporters, or Perry, whose major endorsements are largely from in and around Texas, he can get support from all around the country.
Though experts agree that no single endorsement could make or break a candidate, any that could make him look acceptable to a wide range of voters may make a difference. "What tends to help is an ideological breadth of endorsements, from moderate Republicans to conservative Republicans. Candidates who have just one or the other don't do as well as candidates who have both," Cohen says, adding that he thinks Romney's the only one who appears to have both.
Karol says Romney's campaign should be looking for endorsements from Southern evangelicals and social conservatives, a demographic with which conventional wisdom suggests the former New England-based businessman and governor could have some liabilities. For any candidate, governors--who generally have strong political operations in their states--are also major assets for a campaign. Political leaders in early primary states are helpful too. [Read about Romney's chances in the South.]