Mitt Romney, establishment candidate
In case you’ve missed it, the fire hose of Mitt Romney endorsements has begun, and we wouldn’t count on it stopping.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), the Des Moines Register, former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) all endorsed the former Massachusetts governor in recent days, reinforcing the fact that Romney is going to have far more big-name endorsements than anybody else in the 2012 Republican presidential race. (For proof, check out our endorsement tracker.)
All these endorsements have made it pretty clear – if it wasn’t already – that Romney is the favored candidate of the Republican Party establishment.
But that cuts both ways.
In recent years, as anger with Washington and government spending gave birth to the tea party movement, Republican voters have begun to put a premium on outsider candidates. That’s a big difference from previous GOP presidential primaries when voters and party elites tended to crown the candidate who was simply seen to be the next-in-line.
For an example, look no further than last week, during which Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich fought over just who more closely resembled a political insider and could be more easily defined as a career politician.
Furthermore, a video that surfaced over the weekend shows Romney tried to position himself as the outsider in 2008 as well. During that campaign, when Dole endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and tried to assure conservatives that McCain was one of them, Romney scoffed at the idea.
“I think there are a lot of folks that tend to think that maybe John McCain’s race is a bit like Bob Dole’s race, that it’s the guy who’s the next in line who’s the inevitable choice, and we’ll give it to him,” Romney said. “And it won’t work.”
Reading that quote, it’s not hard to see Gingrich, or whoever winds up being Romney’s chief opponent for the Republican nod, saying almost the exact same thing this time around, when it’s Romney who is perceived to be the next up.
In effect, Romney has become the next-in-line, inevitable choice – which is why he gets the endorsement of someone like Dole and all the other endorsements that are surely in the pipeline, especially with the establishment concerned about Gingrich’s general election prospects.
But in many Republican Senate and congressional primaries last year, that establishment label amounted to a scarlet letter.
We saw establishment Senate candidates succumb to outsiders and tea party candidates in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Nevada and Utah – about half of the races where Republicans faced a legitimate primary.
(It should also be noted that Romney has landed some tea party endorsements, including from 2010 Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell .)
Today, we still see the national Republican Party shying away from supporting certain candidates in primaries, for fear of galvanizing support behind someone it sees as a weaker general election candidate. Given how much people hate Washington and Congress right now — even more than in 2010! — it’s simply not always a good thing to be seen as the candidate favored by those institutions.
In the presidential race, though, Romney’s campaign has instead embraced the endorsements that come with being the establishment favorite. Part of that may be unavoidable (people want to endorse, and it’s hard to stop them), but there are certainly benefits that come along with it, too – be they fundraising, organizational or motivational.
“Endorsements aren’t decisive by themselves,” said GOP consultant Dan Hazelwood. “But they become helpful at this stage and immediately in the wake of the January primaries and caucuses, because they help produce a bandwagon effect which is a giant part of the next six weeks of the Republican presidential primary.”
The question is whether that bandwagon effect is so powerful that it pushes Romney to the nomination, or whether it creates a bandwagon effect for the opposition that doesn’t want an establishment coronation.
One can make that argument that the anti-Romney bandwagon has been rolling along for most of the year, moving from one Romney opponent to another.
Romney’s team appears to be trying to foment its own bandwagon, and time will tell whether the endorsements help or hurt.