What NH endorsements say about the presidential race

This column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on November 18, 2011

Anonymously telling a pollster you plan to vote for a presidential candidate isn’t much of a commitment. It’s like saying, “We should get together for lunch sometime!” Endorsing a candidate is more like getting engaged, a promise made in public, which is why endorsements mean something.

There are 514 elected offices in New Hampshire at the state, county, and Federal levels. By my count, 379 are currently held by Republicans, 319 of whom work at the State House. These office holders are heavily courted by presidential candidates.

Mitt Romney, mirroring his advantage in the polls, leads the pack in endorsements by a wide margin. He has 59 state officials supporting him, including 47 state reps, eight of the 19 Republican state senators, and four of the five executive councilors.

Rick Perry is second with 30 endorsements from state reps. Nearly all of these were announced in September, before Perry’s campaign started listing. Some of them may feel buyer’s remorse about committing before Perry proved himself on the stump, but only a couple abandoned Perry. This is typical of New Hampshire endorsements: Once made, the commitment stands in sickness and in health, ’til death or defeat do we part.

Ron Paul is next with 24 legislative endorsements, including state Sens. Jim Forsythe (Strafford) and Andy Sanborn (Henniker). That’s nearly 10 percent of Republican legislators, reflecting Paul’s broader support.

In fourth place is Rick Santorum with 18, including state Sen. Fenton Groen (Rochester). That’s an impressive number for a candidate who has never polled higher than single digits. These are conviction endorsements, not motivated by wanting to be with a winner as endorsements of frontrunners sometimes are.

Jon Huntsman has 13 legislative supporters, including state Sen. Nancy Stiles (Hampton). People who run for the state Legislature tend to be considerably more ideological than the electorate as a whole, and Huntsman’s base — the pragmatic McCain coalition — lies elsewhere.

Lack of endorsements says something about candidates and their organizations, too. Candidates’ slates of delegates and alternates are due to the Secretary of State this week. Campaigns can name up to 40 committed supporters. That may be a challenge for some candidates.

Herman Cain claims just five legislative endorsements, an indication of how ephemeral Cain’s support is. Gary Johnson gets barred from debates, but still has three state rep endorsements, which is three more than Michele Bachmann.

The Gingrich campaign did not provide specifics, saying only that former U.S. Sen. Bob Smith, now a Florida resident, is a supporter along with “several” legislators. A spokesman said the campaign “is not pursuing endorsements as a strategy.” Talk of a Gingrich surge has to be taken with some skepticism in the absence of public supporters.

Leading in endorsements, as in the polls, is “Undecided.” The majority of state office holders, 52 percent, have not committed to any candidate. With just seven weeks to go, most of those probably never will.

Do endorsements matter? In New Hampshire, yes. State legislators represent small districts and are usually well known in their communities. Among a legislator’s non-activist friends, an endorsement can be influential, at a minimum a reason to give a candidate a closer look and extra consideration. Before making a purchase, you may turn to a trusted friend who knows more about cars or computers. Local elected officials fill this role among their friends about politics.

Another type of endorsement candidates find more challenging: That’s newspaper endorsements.

Thomas Caldwell at The Citizen said only Ron Paul has visited his paper, based in Belknap County, where the entire legislative delegation is Republican. “They’re mostly bypassing us,” Caldwell said. This week Jon Huntsman became the first candidate to visit the Salmon Press chain of weekly papers. Rick Perry eschewed editorial boards entirely in Texas, but is doing some here.

Editorial boards are much tougher than town hall meetings where, contrary to primary mythology, most questions are predictable and repetitive. This week Herman Cain appeared clueless about Libya while speaking to an editorial board in Wisconsin, which by the way is not an early state. Cain is not the only candidate to conclude that editorial board meetings can do more harm than good.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.

Author: Fergus Cullen

Fergus Cullen is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party (2007-2008) and an editorial page columnist for the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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  • Anonymous

    What’s the driving force behind endorsements?  Promises, promises.
    – C. dog keeps it real