Why Aren’t Republican Leaders Endorsing?

Jonathan Bernstein asks why Republican Party leaders–such as they are–haven’t responded to Rick Santorum’s success on Tuesday by rushing to endorse him:

These people must know that by sitting back and watching, they’re basically sanctioning a Mitt Romney nomination. So either they really don’t mind that — or they have something against Rick Santorum. My increasing guess is that it’s the former; they’ve chosen Romney, but are unwilling to attach their names to him. If that’s true, it may mess up the data set for the Party Decides authors, but what’s happening is basically what they (and I) expect: party actors collectively settled on a nominee. And it appears as though they’ll be able to make it stick

There’s another explanation: they don’t want to endorse somebody currently in the race if there’s a possibility that at the convention they’ll have a better candidate to endorse.

I don’t see why a failure to endorse Santorum means that the failure to endorse Romney means they’ve settled on Romney as the Republican nominee. Since self-interest is a driving force of intra-party politics, if the nomination were settled Republican players would be rushing to declare their fealty to the party’s de-facto leader. Maybe they’re holding back from Romney for ideological reasons, or out of fear they’d alienate this or that constituency. But since there are costs to not endorsing the winner or doing it after it has little value, I think it’s just as likely that they’re not yet convinced Romney will be the nominee.

If Republican leaders are convinced–and they’d be right–that everyone in the current  field is weak, and that none of the current candidates are likely to beat Barack Obama, then they wouldn’t see much reason to endorse now. But they would definitely not want to endorse now if they think a better candidate may enter the race before the convention. As I pointed out three months ago, there is a post-1972 precedent for late entries: in 1976 Jerry Brown–in his first tenure as governor of California–and Idaho Senator Frank Church entered the contest in late:

Neither was on a ballot until May, four months after the New Hampshire primary. Despite the late start, both won multiple states. Of the final 17 contests, Jimmy Carter won nine, Church won four and Brown won three. Brown even came within two points of Carter and nine of Church in Oregon, despite having to run as a write-in candidate because he had entered the race too late to meet Oregon’s filing deadline.

Writers like Josh Putnam and Ezra Klein have pooh-poohed the notion of a late entry. It’s too late to get on the ballot to win enough delegates, they argue. I think that’s too literal-minded. It was obvious to Brown and Church that they wouldn’t win enough delegates to secure the nomination before the convention. It may not have been brilliant politics for them to nevertheless enter the race late, but they thought they saw an opportunity to garner enough delegates to deny anyone else enough delegates to lock up the nomination, and in doing so giving themselves a chance of winning the nomination at the convention.

Even if nobody enters the race between now and the final primary, the convention may be more than a procedural rubber-stamp of the primaries. Sean Trende has tossed around some delegate numbers, and while I think some of his assumptions are dubious–for instance, Romney doing well with Cubans and Columbians in Florida hardly translates to him doing well with Latinos elsewhere–I think he’s right that it is unlikely, but not implausible, that when the last primary vote is counted none of the current candidates will have secured the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination.

The problem with any late-entry scenario is not so much the logistics and political risks of building a campaign, but rather that there aren’t any obvious candidates for the role.  If something like this had happened to Democrats in 1988 or 1992, they would have had Mario Cuomo or any number of other respected, talented and potentially formidable candidates to lure off the sidelines. The Republicans don’t have any obvious choices. Mitch Daniels is a deficit-creating bore, Chris Christie has the appearance of someone best suited for the radio era, Bobby Jindal would only have broad appeal to the GOP base if he were really Tom Haverford, and Jeb Bush has a brother problem. Jim DeMint could probably unite convention delegates as well as anyone, but he’d guaranty Obama an LBJ-like landslide.

But if you’re a Republican potentate, and you’re looking at this field, you probably say to yourself “there’s no way Mitt Romney will be our nominee…and there’s no way any of these other guys can beat him.” I doubt there’s any viable candidate thinking the same thing to him or herself, and then taking it further and deciding that they’ll make a play for the nomination. But I’m not certain, and I suspect Republican party leaders aren’t either.

***UPDATE***

A point I think is important to add: by many of the standard measures of candidate strength, Romney should have already dispatched his opponents. Sure, it’s early, and he isn’t the inevitable candidate that Reagan was in 1980 or Bush was in 2000. But he’s also not running against George HW Bush or John McCain. He’s running against three horribly weak candidates who can barely staff a campaign and pay for voter contact. If you’re a seasoned politico, you look at Romney’s campaign and you compare it to everyone else in the Republican field, and you assume there’s no way he loses. But that’s now how it’s working this time, and if Romney’s massive money and organization advantages haven’t been enough to close the deal so far, why should we assume they are certain to be decisive later in the campaign?

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