Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Favorite Son Strategy by Republican Governors? In 2012?

Maybe in 1912, but not in 2012.

FHQ is hesitant to play along with David Broder's thought exercise about Republican governors being able to leverage their influence over the 2012 Republican presidential nomination process. Look, we're big proponents of thought exercises around here (See FHQ poke constructive holes in the various presidential primary reform plans here, here, here, here and here for instance.), but this one seems like a reach. And sure, it is probably fair to say that I tend to be a contrarian within these confines, so let's look at this one a bit more closely.

First, let's look at the assumptions the outcome to Broder's exercise makes. I think he is right to look at the signals gubernatorial endorsements send to rank-in-file primary voters and potentially have on the presidential nomination process. The significance of those endorsements is the primary contribution that Cohen et al. made to the political science literature in The Party Decides. In other words, gubernatorial endorsements serve as an institutional party cue to primary voters and caucus-goers of elite support from within the party during the invisible primary. Of course, there is a difference between the level of influence Broder is speaking about and the what Cohen et al. posit. Broder's is a more calculated and coordinated impact whereas Cohen et al. discuss more of a general influence borne of the aggregated actions of individual governors.

Often it is more about who is on the sidelines rather than who is actually endorsing presidential candidates for your party's nomination. There were, between 1980 and 2004, only two races in which more than three quarters of the governors from one party actually made endorsements. The Republican races in 1996 and 2000. Republican governors overwhelmingly backed both Bob Dole and George W. Bush in the invisible primary phase of the race. I don't have the numbers pre-Iowa from 2008, but as of the end of February there were still ten Democratic and ten Republican governors who had yet to endorse candidates. Will that change in 2012 on the Republican side? There is no way of knowing, but it should be noted that when no clear frontrunner emerges, the tendency is for more governors to wait it out. The 1988 and 2004 Democratic nomination races illustrate this nicely. Only 19% and 5% of Democratic governors in those respective cycles came forward to endorse a candidate during the invisible primary period.*

The major problem with Broder's idea, then, is that it requires a level of coordination on the part of the Republican governors not seen since the days of before presidential nomination reform. And even then, such action was likely to have manifest itself at the nominating convention rather than the invisible primary.

Can Republican governors coordinate that collective action problem (Broder is assuming in his op/ed that they can.) and even if they can, what impact do those endorsements play? I'll take that second first as it builds nicely on the point from above. With the exception of 2004, those governors who endorsed candidates during the invisible primary were more likely to have throws their support behind the eventual winner of the nomination. Again, the numbers I have for 2008 were collected in the midst of the battle for the nominations, but the Republican endorsements follow the trend (7 of 22 Republican governors supported McCain) while the Democratic endorsements were like 2004, inconclusive (10 of 28 Democratic governors backed Clinton while 7 supported Obama.). What this all seems to indicate is that the governors who play the endorsement game typically send a collective signal of their choice to voters. Typically. Now, first of all, we're talking about a plurality, not unanimity. But we also see that in multi-candidate races, there's less of a chance that even a modicum of consensus builds behind one candidate. In other words, when there is no clear frontrunner.

The conditions seem right, then. But can or will Republican governors pull the trigger on such a plan. They perhaps can, but Broder's idea also seems to require some help from the candidates; that they acknowledge that one candidate is more likely to win in one area than another and stay away. It isn't clear to me that that is a viable strategy. "Skipping" has not been and will not more than likely be a winning strategy for any candidate. Just look at Rudy Giuliani in 2008. He ceded the bulk of attention to Huckabee, McCain and Romney waiting on Florida's primary to roll around. But by then it was too late. The same will be true in 2012 no matter what the calendar ultimately looks like.

The more I think about this, the more it seems like a way to elevate someone other than the four candidates who have been talked about (and polled) the most frequently: Gingrich, Huckabee, Palin and Romney. If the longer shots like Pawlenty or Barbour try and pick and choose their spots -- and one would have to think that they would have to pick off Iowa and South Carolina respectively to catapult themselves into the conversation -- they risk yielding attention to the other candidates who may or may not be organizing and spending money in all the early states and into Super Tuesday instead of based on geography.

I just don't see the governors being able to coordinate this with the candidates. Now collectively, some group of governors and others within the party's establishment may be able to signal to voters who they want to be the choice, but that's the only way that that's going to occur. This individual endorsement having a direct influence over the outcome of a given primary or caucus hypothesis is a stretch. It is an aggregate versus individual-level issue. We see an aggregate influence over the identity of the eventual nominee, but not an individual influence over individual state results in terms of these gubernatorial endorsements.

I mean, look at how quickly Terry Branstad responded to the Broder's assertion that the Iowa governor was backing Pawlenty.

*These numbers come from Figure 1.1 in "The Invisible Primary in Presidential Nominations, 1980-2004." by Cohen et al. which appears in Mayer's The Making of the Presidential Candidates, 2004.

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