Of the 50 influential Republicans on our endorsement tracker (it’s also a game!), only eight have committed to a candidate. Twenty have said they definitely or likely won’t endorse at all in the GOP primary. But only a handful of kingmakers who endorsed early in the 2008 process have declined to back a candidate this time around.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) endorsed former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in January 2007 and does not plan to endorse this cycle.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) endorsed former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) in mid-December of 2008. He planned to back a candidate earlier this time around, and now he likely won’t endorse at all.
When he dropped out of the race himself in late January 2008, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). This time around, he has yet to endorse.
Influential Iowa conservative Bob Vander Plaats was an early supporter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008; he has not decided on a candidate yet this cycle. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was an early McCain backer who has not endorsed.
But most coveted Republicans who are definitely or likely staying out of the process this time around did not pick a candidate until later in the 2008 game.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh endorsed Romney just a few days before the candidate bowed out in 2008, and he has yet to endorse again. Social conservative leader James Dobson endorsed Huckabee in February and has not endorsed in the 2012 race.
Most top Republicans didn’t make a “choice” until Romney dropped out of the race and McCain’s victory as the GOP nominee was all but assured. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Jeb Bush all endorsed Romney in February. So did Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Still more Republican heavyweights endorsed in March, when Huckabee dropped out and McCain was the only candidate left standing. Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and former First Lady Nancy Reagan all endorsed in March of 2008.
Others high-profile Republicans never endorsed in 2008, including Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Former Vice President Dick Cheney didn’t endorse until November of 2008.
The comparisonbetween now and four years ago is imperfect, because not everyone influential in 2012 was considered so in 2008. Some of the figures on our list were not in office and replaced candidates who did wade into the 2008 process.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who says he won’t endorse, replaced Charlie Crist, who endorsed McCain in January (Florida is crucial to the GOP nominating process). Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won’t endorse; then-Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) endorsed McCain in January. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) replaced then- Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), who endorsed McCain in February of 2008.
It’s true that Hill Republicans have been slower to endorse this time around. And a number of Republicans have publicly agonized over their choices.
But for a lot of the heavyweights, early presidential endorsements are not a habit, so not much should be read into their ambivalence.