It’d be a mistake to overstate the impact of a single endorsement, especially one from a one-time rival who never commanded much in the way of national popularity or resources, but Tim Pawlenty’s quick backing of Mitt Romney says a few things about the current primary race, only now rounding the corner into its first straightaway.
For the moderate Republican establishmentarians — and don’t let Pawlenty’s campaign or his final months as governor fool you, he is one — there are only really two choices in the current field: Romney or Jon Huntsman. With an Obama White House bulletpoint on his resume and margin of error support in every poll, Huntsman isn’t much of a option. One of Romney’s advantages over Rick Perry is that there’s no one to siphon his votes in places like New Hampshire. One the other hand, If Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul perform well, it could limit Perry’s likely gains in such states as Iowa or South Carolina.
In addition, for other high-profile Republicans sitting on the sidelines, still pondering who has the best chance to beat Obama, Pawlenty’s decision might persuade others to follow suit. As Jonathan Bernstein writes, endorsements have a group effect:
Collectively, high-profile endorsements are a way for party actors to signal to each other their preferences, which helps them to coordinate their collective choice — or, in the case of factional battles over the nomination, to coordinate a faction. In that sense, endorsements are quite important.
Pawlenty is now an ambassador for the Romney campaign. The act of the endorsement itself — an e-mail to supporters and a post at Nation Review — is just step one in what will essentially be a surrogacy. It’s worth remembering that Romney quickly pivoted from scrapping with John McCain in 2008 to being a ubiquitous advocate for his former rival on TV. In fact, it’s already started. Here’s Pawlenty delivering Romney’s Social Security line on Fox & Friends this morning: “Governor Romney wants to fix Social Security. He doesn’t want to abolish it or end it. Governor Perry has said in the past that he thought it was ‘failed.'”
Finally, as he was in 2008, Pawlenty will now be part of the veepstakes if Romney becomes the nominee. That doesn’t mean his chances are particularly good. Marco Rubio offers the kind of excitement and demographic appeal that the Milquetoast Midwesterner can’t command, and there are other Republican governors, like Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, with sterling conservative credentials. Nonetheless, Pawlenty’s name will likely hang around for a while.