Across the country, most Republicans haven’t committed fully to any of the party’s presidential candidates. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 69 percent on the GOP side said there was still a chance they could change their minds about their choice.
In Washington, an elite focus group of 289 Republicans was even more indecisive.
That group consists of the GOP members of the House and Senate, of whom just 60 — or 21 percent — have publicly endorsed a presidential candidate, according to a list maintained by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
The lawns of Iowa and New Hampshire are still covered mostly with leaves, not snow, so lawmakers have some time left to choose a side. But the endorsement pace has been much slower than it was during the last election cycle.
As of Nov. 9, 2007, 107 Hill Republicans — 43 percent of the total then serving — had offered their endorsements to a White House contender, according to a Roll Call tally at the time.
The current list includes 36 endorsements for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, 14 for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, six for ex-House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), three for Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and one for businessman Herman Cain. That total does not include Paul himself, although his preference appears clear. The same is true for Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.).
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and ex-senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) have yet to receive any Capitol Hill endorsements.
Four years ago, Romney led the way with a similar number, 33, followed by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) with 29, ex-New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani with 24 and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) with 21.
The simplest explanation for the current sluggish pace is that members are just as confused by this primary as their constituents are.
“The commitment level is very low [among voters], which leads you to believe the race is still very fluid,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), an economics adviser to Perry, adding that “it sounds like that same sentiment” exists on the Hill.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Romney’s congressional liaison, had a slightly different explanation.
“I think that everything this cycle has been on a slower pace than the last one, whether it’s fundraising or endorsements or just getting the campaign started,” Blunt said.
Although some prominent conservatives have been hesitant to back Romney because of his past positions on issues such as abortion, health care and climate change, Blunt said he did not believe such criticisms were having an effect on lawmakers’ willingness to endorse Romney. He suggested that more members were just waiting for the right time and would be backing Romney soon.
Unlike in 2000, when he served as the House liaison for George W. Bush’s campaign, Blunt said lawmakers now “want to know when it would be most helpful to endorse,” partly depending on where their states fall on the primary calendar.
Mulvaney also expects more support to gravitate toward his candidate. He is arranging a meeting with Perry this month for 20 to 25 congressional Republicans eager to learn more about the governor, and he predicted that the floodgates would open “as soon as the non-Romney candidate becomes apparent.”
Of the 25 Texas Republicans in the House and Senate, only eight have endorsed their governor. Three have endorsed other candidates.
Rep. Joe Barton, for example, is a Gingrich backer. But while Barton said he believed Gingrich was “the dark-horse candidate who’s going to exceed expectations,” he also said he only endorsed the former speaker after Perry told him he wasn’t running.
“If Newt were to drop out, I would switch over to Governor Perry,” Barton said.
Compared with 2008, Barton said, “it’s a lot more open this time. There’s a lot more uncertainty.”
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) endorsed Giuliani in early 2007, in part because he knew the former mayor personally. This time around, he’s keeping his powder dry.
It’s not helping, Nunes said, that “most of our candidates at this point are arguing with each other rather than talking about Social Security, Medicare, energy” and other issues.
Having more than 20 endorsements in November 2007 didn’t do much good for Giuliani, nor did the support of some former Hill colleagues keep Thompson’s campaign from flaming out quickly.
And Romney was unable to parlay his early endorsement lead into the Republican nomination.
“I think endorsements are overrated,” Mulvaney said. “The real question is, do you have buy-in from the people who say they’re endorsing you? . . . An endorsement is one thing, active participation is another.”