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Some Signs G.O.P. Establishment’s Backing of Romney Is Tenuous

Sunday’s post on whether Newt Gingrich’s recent success has broken the paradigm in which party elites play a decisive role in determining presidential nominations drew hundreds of comments. Since there seems to be considerable interest in the topic, I would also encourage you to read the recent writings of the political scientists Seth Masket, John Sides and Jonathan Bernstein on the subject.

My view is that if Mr. Gingrich were actually to win the nomination, it would be a pretty terrible result for the theory. It might mean that something has changed in the American political landscape, that there are particular factors in this year’s Republican nomination race that are counteracting the theory, that the evidence for the theory was somewhat overstated to begin with — or all of the above.

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. Mr. Gingrich has not won the nomination yet, obviously, and my view is that he remains the underdog to do so.

There is another question, however, which is also highly pertinent to the discussion — and which could make the theory look better. It’s clear that many party elites are vehemently opposed to Mr. Gingrich’s nomination — but just how firmly committed are they to Mitt Romney?

The most quantifiable measure of elite support is endorsements from party officials. As we have pointed out previously, Mr. Romney has far more endorsements than any other candidate. For instance, among the 75 current Republican senators and governors, Mr. Romney has 19 endorsements. By comparison, Newt Gingrich has 2, Ron Paul has 1, and Rick Perry had 4 before he dropped out.

You may also notice, however, that this represents just 26 endorsements total — barely more than a third of the possible total. By the standards of recent years, many elected officials have been slow to endorse.

FiveThirtyEight’s Micah Cohen built a database of senatorial and gubernatorial endorsements in past nomination cycles. The counts are probably slightly conservative in that it is not always easy to pinpoint the date of an endorsement, but it should be reasonably comprehensive in the years from 2000 onward.

Using this database, we can look at how many senators and governors had endorsed in the presidential race in the time frame up to two weeks after the New Hampshire primary. (Tuesday will be the two-week anniversary of Mr. Romney’s win in New Hampshire.) In each race since 2000, the pace of endorsements was faster than it has been this year, sometimes considerably so:

In the 2000 Republican race, for instance, 87 percent of G.O.P. senators and governors had endorsed by two weeks after the New Hampshire primary, with almost all of those endorsements going to George W. Bush. Meanwhile, at least 60 percent of Democratic senators and governors had endorsed in that race, with the vast majority of those endorsements going to Al Gore.

In 2004 and 2008, the endorsement pace was slower than in 2000 — but ahead of where it is this year. Between 42 and 47 percent of senators and governors had endorsed at a comparable point in those election  cycles, versus 35 percent this year.

Thus, although it’s clear that Mr. Romney is preferred by these party elites to any other current candidate, it’s not clear how much enthusiasm there is for his candidacy in an absolute rather than relative sense.

And if one looks beyond objective measures of party support to subjective ones like the coverage the candidates receive at conservative news outlets, there have been some troubling signs for Mr. Romney lately.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, for instance, which has generally been sympathetic to Mr. Romney, on Monday published an article that expressed concerns about his message and his ability to withstand attacks from Mr. Gingrich and from Democrats. The article was self-aware in describing the role played by party elites and suggested that there were reasons that they had been slow to warm to Mr. Romney, even if they found Mr. Gingrich unacceptable:

As for the GOP establishment, such as it still is, Mr. Gingrich’s re-emergence is likely to cause a panic attack. They don’t believe he is electable. Our advice would be to relax and let the voters decide. If Mr. Romney can’t marshal the wit and nerve to defeat the speaker, then he isn’t likely to defeat Mr. Obama.

If GOP office-holders had a better candidate, they should have rallied behind one to get into the race, and they still could if the primary contest drags on without a clear winner. In any case the record of elected GOP politicians in picking nominees is hardly inspiring. Rank-and-file voters are likely to have a clearer sense of what the country needs. On to Florida.

Another influential conservative, Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, who has frequently defended Mr. Romney, also adopted a more equivocal tone in a blog post she wrote Sunday.

In the post, addressed to Republicans like Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan who have not yet endorsed in the race, Ms. Rubin suggested that it was time for them to pick a candidate. But she also suggested that one of them could still run for president themselves.

I am just making an inference from what I am seeing and reading in other published accounts, but it seems to me that the possibility Ms. Rubin mentions — that another candidate could get into the race — is an important dynamic that may be contributing to the sluggishness to back Mr. Romney.

Another conservative, Joe Scarborough, said on his television program late last week that he was hearing more chatter from his conservative sources about the possibility of a brokered convention, one at which a late-entry candidate might be picked. Rush Limbaugh touched on a similar theme. So did the former head of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, who put the odds of a brokered convention at 50-50.

William Kristol, meanwhile, wrote an article for The Weekly Standard that envisioned a scenario under which Mr. Daniels — who is delivering the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union address on Tuesday — could use the speech to test the waters for a late-entry campaign. Meanwhile, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and someone who is also mentioned as a potential late entrant, said Sunday that he would refrain from endorsing in the presidential primary there.

Opinion leaders like Ms. Rubin, Mr. Scarborough, Mr. Steele, Mr. Kristol and Mr. Limbaugh are not just garden-variety conservatives. They are well connected and influential in Republican politics, and they have started to strike a similar theme in recent days.

Just how plausible is it that a candidate like Mr. Daniels could enter the race now — and potentially win?

I would certainly not put the odds at 50-50, as Mr. Steele does. But — in contrast to other data-driven analysts — I don’t think the possibility is that far-fetched. The scenario in which Mr. Romney seems to be struggling, but the major alternative to him is Mr. Gingrich, is precisely the one where this might become more of a possibility.

In some ways, in fact, this scenario would result from an interesting confluence of the “More of the Same” and “This Time Is Different” paradigms as I outlined them Sunday.

Republican Party elites, who are especially important under the “More of the Same” theory, would be key to instigating such a scenario.

But the circumstances of this year’s race are unique enough that there is a higher-than-normal chance of it being precedent-breaking.

Late-entry candidates and brokered conventions have not occurred in the recent past. But there has also not been a case in the recent past in which a candidate like Mr. Gingrich, so vehemently opposed by party elites, was surging ahead in key national and state polls at this stage of the nomination process.

To be sure, drafting a candidate like Mr. Daniels would be incredibly risky for Republicans. The candidate could be a failure on the stump. The move could be seen as a power grab, further widening the divide between the party establishment and the rank and file. It could backfire by cutting Mr. Romney’s support out from under him, resulting in the nomination of Mr. Gingrich. It would almost certainly give more of a role to Ron Paul, who will control some delegates and whom Republican elites also dislike. And because party nominating rules and ballot access rules have not been put to the test in recent years, there are “unknown unknowns” in addition to these obvious risks.

It is important to note, however, that party elites may also see a lot of upside potential in this scenario. It would not just be a ploy to prevent Mr. Gingrich’s nomination. It would also open the door to the party’s nominee being someone like Mr. Daniels or Mr. Bush or Mr. Ryan — candidates whom some influential conservatives have preferred to Mr. Romney all along.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.