12.07.11

10 GOP Endorsements That Still Matter in 2012’s Presidential Election

Bobby Jindal might be regretting that Rick Perry pick, and Mike Huckabee’s staying neutral, but from Sarah Palin to Jim DeMint and Herman Cain, John Avlon’s got the 10 names whose endorsement could sway the 2012 race.

Did Dan Quayle’s endorsement help Mitt Romney’s campaign?

Probably not. But just because that bland, punch-line-ready pairing seemed like a sad response to plummeting poll numbers doesn’t mean endorsements don’t matter.

Caucuses and primaries can come down to a few hundred votes, and the right endorsement at the right time can make a pivotal difference, providing a local boost, balancing negative perceptions, or rallying the base.

The fault lines in this GOP primary—now between Newt Gingrich and Romney, with Ron Paul rounding out the winner’s circle—follow the divisions between establishment and insurgent conservatives that have defined the GOP for decades.

To date, Romney has rounded up the most endorsements by far: three governors, including Chris Christie, six senators, and 40 members of Congress. But even support from the smart money can’t buy you love, as Mitt’s poll numbers have fallen in states like Florida just days after receiving supposedly influential local endorsements.

By contrast, Newt is surging despite only a handful of endorsements so far, mostly limited to the Georgia congressional delegation. Endorsing too early is also risky: potential VP nominees Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval probably regret their impulsive endorsements of fellow governor Rick Perry before his problem stringing sentences together on stage became apparent.

Nonetheless, with the Iowa caucuses less than four weeks away, a small shift in momentum in an early primary state can start to snowball. And with a notably weak GOP field, an usual number of potentially powerful endorsements has yet to be handed out.

One of the calculations these would-be power brokers need to make is whether they want to nudge history toward their conservative tribe or simply pick between the lesser or more electable of the two evils. The safe decision—staying neutral, as Mike Huckabee and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley have said they plan to do—allows them to hover above the fray and support the eventual nominee, but such caution is rarely rewarded with a cabinet position.

As we come closer to January kickoff, these 10 outstanding endorsements could be game changers in their own right:

1. Sarah Palin

It’s amazin’ how quickly her political influence has faded—but the overheated and overvalued political obsession of 2009 and 2010 still has one trick up her sleeve this election cycle: her primary endorsement. The Palin seal of approval could boost the numbers of any candidate in the field by rallying the conservative populist base. Significantly, Palin praised Gingrich back in October when he was stuck in the middle of the pack, saying he would “clobber Barack Obama in any debate” and giving high marks for the way “he seems to be above a lot of the bickering that goes on” at the debates. A Palin endorsement would solidify Gingrich’s status as a conservative alternative to Romney, while Palin also could play spoiler by choosing another candidate.

2. Jeb Bush

His father and brother won’t get into the endorsement game as former presidents, but Jeb has the freedom that comes with being a former swing-state governor and policy leader in the GOP. With Bush family loyalist Karl Rove taking shots at Perry and now Gingrich, it will be interesting to see whether a Bush family member will throw his weight behind Team Romney. This endorsement would signify the establishment's rallying around Romney, for better or worse. For what it’s worth, Jeb’s son backed Jon Huntsman early on.

3. Terry Branstad

The popular governor of Iowa represents the center-right of the Republican Party in his state. He’s remained mum to date and has only four weeks left to make an impact on the 2012 presidential race. On paper, he’d be a logical Romney fan, but the amiable and mustachioed 2008 Rudy Giuliani supporter has criticized the former Massachusetts governor for spending so little time in the state before November. Branstad’s likely to keep his peace at this stage, but his support still could be a game changer in the Iowa caucuses.

4. Marco Rubio

Everyone’s back-of-the-napkin electoral-math favorite VP nominee has resisted endorsements to date, just as he’s said he would decline an invitation to join the 2012 ticket. But his endorsement could provide dramatic help in the pivotal primary state of Florida, perhaps even more than Jeb Bush’s, though they would be likely to move together if either got in the fray. This rising Senate star could rally Tea Partiers as well as Hispanics in the Sunshine State, the traditional tiebreaker for the January primaries.

5. Jim DeMint

This is the ultimate two-fer endorsement: a national Tea Party leader and South Carolina senator. More than any one else in the Palmetto State, DeMint could shift momentum if he decides to endorse. A rumor that he would back Romney was quickly swatted down by the senator’s staff, and he seems sanguine about supporting any nominee over Barack Obama. But DeMint is the real power player in S.C. politics, known for corralling the congressional delegation in his direction by any means necessary.

6. John McCain

The former GOP nominee is still widely respected, distrusted though he may be by the talk-radio crowd. His endorsement would give the imprimatur of national leadership as well as resonate with independents in the states with open primaries, most notably New Hampshire, which he won twice. He’s one of the few politicians who has earned the right to be considered a hero based on personal courage. Historically, he’s been a leader of the center-right, but Romney didn’t win many fans among his GOP primary competitors in the 2008 campaign.

7. Nikki Haley

The South Carolina governor has been courted by conservatives since she moved into the governor’s mansion after the 2010 election. On paper, she’s a rising star, the second Indian-American Republican governor after Louisiana’s Jindal and the first woman to hold the post in South Carolina. In the state, however, her reputation is a bit more complicated. After weathering a campaign sex scandal and receiving middling reviews from her onetime colleagues in the state legislature, Haley’s job-approval ratings are slightly underwater, with 41 percent approving and 43 percent disapproving. Nonetheless, her support would capture headlines and attention all around the Palmetto State, possibly reverberating both right and center.

8. Rudy Giuliani

The former New York City mayor is still one of the most i- demand surrogates in the Republican field, broadly popular with the base while retaining an ability to connect with independents. And of all the candidates who considered getting in the 2012 race, Giuliani was the only one whom polls showed consistently beating Obama head to head. Giuliani’s endorsement—and, yes, I used to work for him—can still back a punch and get voters’ attention, especially in swing states. Crucially, he retains credibility with both establishment and insurgent Republicans. Both Gingrich and Romney would benefit from his endorsement, big-time. In addition, Perry was a supporter of Giuliani’s in 2008, and the former mayor values loyalty. Somehow, I don’t think Ron Paul is in contention for Giuliani’s consideration.

9. Herman Cain

The Herminator will find that his power-broker status declines with every day he’s out of the race, but his 8 or so percent diehard supporters can still be directed to another candidate and do them some good, to the extent that standing on the same stage doesn’t call up images of Ginger White mentally shopping while in bed. Endorsing fast will be the best way to keep his relevance intact beyond the memory of the 9-9-9 mantra.

10. Rick Scott

Four years ago, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was widely courted by the GOP presidential candidates. Scott, who’s now governor, has been almost invisible in the 2012 debate, despite Florida’s expected status as tiebreaker after New Hampshire and South Carolina. The problem is that Scott is unpopular—awkward, should-we-be-seen-with-him-in-public unpopular. In the latest polls, only 37 percent of Floridians approve of the Tea Party–backed governor, while 52 percent disprove. In Scott’s defense, that’s up from 27 percent approval just five months after taking office. Still, in a GOP primary, a Scott endorsement is likely to help slightly more than it will hurt. In the general election, the GOP nominee will be acting like Scott doesn’t exist.