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The Republican Establishment Is Waiting On The Sidelines

The outsiders are coming! The outsiders are coming!

Donald Trump has led the Republican primary race in almost every survey over the past two months, and now two other non-politicians, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, are also climbing up the polls. It’s all very unusual; Republican voters typically fall in line behind the party’s preferred candidate.

So are outsiders really taking over the GOP nominating process? It’s possible. The 17-strong Republican field is the largest in modern primary history, and it’s hard to say how that might affect the race. But it’s also September 2015, and for all the noise, the GOP primary has barely begun. Some of the most decisive voices have yet to be heard: Republican Party bigwigs are still mostly sitting on the sidelines.

We’ve been keeping track of endorsements, a key measure of party support and candidate strength, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has more points1 than any other Republican. But Bush’s total — 35 points — accounts for just 4 percent of the all the points available (if every Republican House member, governor and senator endorsed).

That’s very low.

Of primaries since 1980,2 only the 1988 and 19923 Democratic fields had a leader with a lower share of possible endorsement points with this many days to go until the Iowa caucuses.

2016 D Hillary Clinton 322 95% 55%
2000 R George W. Bush 436 79 54
1996 R Bob Dole 281 75 35
2000 D Al Gore 207 93 34
2008 D Hillary Clinton 120 61 16
2008 R John McCain 93 40 14
1980 R Ronald Reagan 59 61 11
1984 D Walter Mondale 86 52 10
1988 R George H.W. Bush 64 41 10
2004 D Dick Gephardt 39 27 6
2012 R Mitt Romney 45 67 6
2016 R Jeb Bush 34 27 4
1988 D Dick Gephardt 26 27 3
1992 D Paul Tsongas/Dave McCurdy 2 40 0

So most of the Republican establishment hasn’t made up its mind about 2016 yet. Moreover, the party actors who have made up their minds aren’t united. Bush has just 27 percent of the endorsement points already given out. That makes this race quite unlike the 2012 primary; in 2012, there was also few early endorsements, but Mitt Romney received almost all of them. The endorsements so far in the 2016 race are fairly evenly spread out.

Endorsement Primary

Interactive: We’re tracking 2016 presidential primary endorsements. Check out the most important race before the actual race »

The lack of a consensus establishment candidate creates more space for non-traditional candidates to do well right now. But whether those outsiders can win the nomination depends on whether the party actors get their act together and coalesce around a candidate. The fact that that hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

If the party apparatus can’t unite behind someone, then maybe this time really is different. But more likely, the party will rally behind someone eventually. In the past, these non-traditional candidates went on to self-destruct (Herman Cain in 2012), get squashed by the party actors (Newt Gingrich in 2012) or hit a ceiling (Pat Buchanan in 1996).

Whatever happens to the outsiders, it’s way too early to say the establishment no longer holds sway over the party. The 2016 Republican campaign for president is still in its infancy.


  1. Ten points for an endorsement from a governor, five points for a senator and one point for each House endorsement.

  2. Without an incumbent president running.

  3. The eventual winner Bill Clinton didn’t officially declare his bid until October 1991.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.