If you want to game out who will be the Republican nominee for president, the most important news isn’t that Newt Gingrich is savaging Mitt Romney in South Carolina. It isn’t any new polling in the state or on the national level.
No, the biggest news is that Romney continues to dominate the endorsements contest, picking up the support late yesterday of former UN ambassador John Bolton and also key supporters of South Carolina Senator and conservative powerhouse Jim DeMint.
Are you wondering how the Republican nomination race could be almost over when only two states have voted, with Romney winning one and only tying in the other? The answer: Nominees are not simply selected by a sequential, state-by-state system of voters electing delegates; we also have national and local political parties, and the decisions influential party members make wind up influencing voters. When the hundreds or even thousands of party actors coordinate and agree on a candidate, that collective decision puts so many useful resources — money, favorable media attention, and work-hours — in the hands of that candidate that public opinion and eventually votes are almost certain to follow. By themselves, individual endorsement decisions can be idiosyncratic and meaningless. But collectively, if and when party actors agree on a candidate, the game is over.
That’s the race Romney has been increasingly dominating, by every measure. Of 92 current Members of Congress who have endorsed any candidate, 63 are with Romney; Rick Perry is a distant second with 13. The folks at Pollster have been interviewing “power outsiders” — key party officials, activists, and other GOP leaders in early states — and Romney has moved into a commanding lead among them, too. On the Washington Post list of fifty high-profile endorsees, most are still silent, but six of the ten who have acted are with Romney. Now he’s got the implicit stamp of approval of DeMint, perhaps the single most important endorsement out there, in the form of backing from much of his local team. Having already picked up Nikki Haley’s support, Romney is now moving into a solid endorsement lead on my list, too.
None of this automatically translates into voter support. But it’s a very strong wind blowing at Romney’s back, and in everyone else’s faces. The stronger that wind gets, the less everything else matters. And at this point, it’s getting stronger every day.