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June 09, 2015

Today we welcome a guest post from Professor Chris Galdieri of St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH. Professor Galdieri teaches the presidency and a course on The New Hampshire primary, as well as other courses on American politics. His research focuses on the interplay between political elites and the mass public.

This past week Rick Perry joined the Republican field.  Perry, like Rick Santorum, first ran in 2012, and Mike Huckabee ran in 2008.  There's nothing inherently wrong with making a second run after losing the first time around: Mitt Romney's 2008 loss didn't keep him from winning the nomination in 2012, and Hillary Clinton is almost certain to win the Democratic nomination next year after losing to Barack Obama in 2008.  But Perry, Huckabee, and Santorum's first runs all shared a real weakness that will be deadly to their presidential hopes if it recurs this time around: A decided lack of support from elite actors in their party.

            Research into presidential nominations has found time and again that endorsements from elected officials, issue activists, and other party leaders are one of the strongest predictors of who will win a party's nomination.  That's not to say that primary and caucus votes don't matter; in some years, these elite actors wait to see how candidates fare in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire – sometimes, as in 2008's Democratic contest, even longer - to make their decision about which candidate to support.  But candidates who can't win over their party's elected officials, interest group leaders and activists, and fundraisers are unlikely to win their party's nomination.  Unfortunately for Huckabee, Santorum, and Perry, in each of their previous runs they had real problems winning that kind of support.

            My colleague Kevin Parsneau and I have examined the endorsements made by sitting governors, House members, and senators in the 2008 and 2012 Republican nomination contests.  Based on the endorsements made in those races, Huckabee, Santorum, and Perry all have a serious uphill climb ahead of them.

            Both Huckabee and Santorum began their campaigns with little support from party actors.  Both candidates started out in the back of fields with better-known, better-funded, flashier opponents, so that's not much of a surprise.  But neither candidate saw much of an increase in support from elite actors in the wake of their Iowa caucus victories, or, in Santorum's case, his surprise wins in a handful of later primaries and caucuses.  Huckabee, for instance, racked up just five endorsements from sitting governors, House members, and senators by the start of 2008; by the time he finally ended his campaign, he had added just one more endorsement to his tally.  In Santorum's case, he had no support from sitting governors, House members, or senators before his surprise win in Iowa (which, you'll recall, was disputed for several weeks as initial tallies had Romney winning by a bare handful of votes).  But even after that and several subsequent wins, he netted a grand total of six endorsements by the end of his campaign just before the Pennsylvania primary.  Whether because of these candidates' social conservatism, elite actors' perceptions of their electability, some other factors, or a combination thereof, elite Republicans did not want to get behind either of these candidates, even after caucus and primary success showed that they had constituencies in the Republican primary electorate.  The longshot candidate's dream of early success that leads to media attention, an influx of campaign donations, and more wins cannot come true if that early success does not also bring support from party actors.  If Santorum and Huckabee cannot win more elite support this year, they're unlikely to do much better than they did in their first presidential runs.

            Rick Perry's previous run casts an even darker shadow over his current campaign.  When Perry joined the race unexpectedly in 2011, he was instantly taken seriously.  Mitt Romney was the frontrunner of a weak field, but many Republicans wanted a viable, more conservative alternative.  As the longtime conservative governor of a major state, Perry brought governing, ideological, and electoral credentials to the table that other non-Romney candidates lacked.  And some elite party members responded favorably to him: He quickly acquired endorsements from seventeen sitting governors, House members, and senators, including rising stars like Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada.  Perry still lagged behind Romney's endorsement total, but these endorsements signaled that there was a genuine appetite within the GOP for a more conservative alternative to Romney.  However, a series of gaffes, misstatements, and poor debate performances put an end to the Perry boomlet; by the time of his infamous and legendary "oops" answer at a debate in November 2011, Republican officeholders had stopped endorsing him.  Had Perry the candidate lived up to Perry on paper, Perry may well have given Romney a run for his money, or even defeated him for the nomination.  But elite party actors want to win elections, and being a poor candidate, as Perry was in 2011, is the best way to lose their support.

            2016 is not 2012 or 2008, of course.  But for Perry, Santorum, and Huckabee to have any chance in a crowded field, they're going to need to convince Republican party actors to get behind them in a way that they did not the last time they had a chance.

Mike Huckabee, political parties, Rick Perry, endorsements, Rick Santorum

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