One of the more interesting debates so far this election cycle has been over whether the party decides. Do party elites — politicians, activists, media, etc. — have enough power to influence the nominating contest? Can they pick a winner? Can they stop someone from winning? If so, then Donald Trump, who doesn’t have a single endorsement from a sitting governor or member of Congress, should have little shot at the Republican nomination.
For much of this campaign, however, Republican Party elites weren’t deciding. Most Republican governors and members of Congress haven’t endorsed anyone, and the pace of endorsements has been slower than in past campaigns. But that’s starting to change: More GOP elites are taking the plunge.
In fact, by a hair — and for the moment — Marco Rubio has overtaken the pace set by at least one past Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Rubio has picked up the endorsements of Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina this week. Indeed, Rubio has greatly increased his endorsement pace since the Iowa caucuses, picking up 42 weighted endorsement points1 in the past two-and-a-half weeks, according to the FiveThirtyEight endorsement tracker. That’s nearly half of the 85 points he has overall. All the other candidates who remain in the race have received only 4 endorsement points combined since the Iowa caucuses. The second-place candidate, Jeb Bush, has 51 points, but most of those came early in the campaign, when Bush looked far more formidable; he’s earned just 17 points since September.
That’s not to say the party has settled on Rubio. Of the available GOP endorsement points, Rubio has only a little over 10 percent. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has nearly 80 percent of the Democratic points available. But Rubio is starting to do better than some previous endorsement leaders at this point in the campaign.
Rubio has more endorsement points than Democrat Dick Gephardt did at a comparable point in the 1988 campaign; he led the field with 57 endorsement points. Rubio is also outpacing Ronald Reagan’s 1980 mark:2
And Rubio’s post-Iowa uptick is extra good news for him: History has shown that newer endorsements are more predictive of success than stale ones. Gephardt, for example, hadn’t picked up a single endorsement point post-Iowa at this point in the campaign — and he didn’t win the nomination.
The question, of course, is whether any of this matters. In this seemingly “anti-establishment” year, it’s tempting to say that it doesn’t. I’d argue, though, that if Rubio can keep up his pace, it could make a difference.
The biggest problem for the anti-Trump crowd is that its support has been divided; Rubio, Bush and John Kasich are splitting the anti-Trump vote (it’s harder to say how Ted Cruz fits in here). Trump’s support has been fairly stable in national polls, at about 35 percent, over the past month, and it’s starting to look like he has a core group of supporters who will stick with him come hell or high water. On the other hand, 35 percent is not all that close to 50 percent. If Rubio can coalesce the anti-Trump vote and get to a one-on-one with Trump, Rubio may be able to come out on top. These endorsements could be a signal to anti-Trump voters to rally around Rubio. They may also be a signal to Bush and Kasich to clear the way, that Rubio is Republican elites’ best chance to stop Trump. Of course, in a campaign as wacky as 2016 has been, it may not work.