Most things in politics don’t matter nearly as much as the people who write about politics for a living say, but I think endorsements like Tim Pawlenty’s announced support for Mitt Romney are worth paying attention to. The case against being interested in endorsements is the sensible point that if Pawlenty had some loyal base of fanatical followers, he wouldn’t have dropped out of the race. That’s true, but what matters about endorsements isn’t so much that particular endorsers drive votes as that in the aggregate this is one of the ways party leaders signal and coordinate with each other.
Mitt Romney has a lot going for him as a candidate. As a former governor, he’s a plausible president. As a former governor of a blue state, he has a demonstrated ability to get voters who don’t normally vote Republican to vote for a Republican. He polls well in head-to-head match-ups against President Obama. He has a nationwide fundraising base grounded in the financial services industry and the LDS community. But he also has a number of well-known weakness, and key among them is the idea that some elements of his record should make him ideologically unacceptable to conservatives. In a race where the nominee is basically going to be either Rick Perry or Romney, things like Karl Rove and Dick Cheney taking swipes as Perry last week constitute de facto support for Romney. Yet it’s explicit support for Romney as offered by Pawlenty that sends the clearest signal that conservatives should regard Romney as acceptable. Pawlenty never had a huge Q rating or an ecstatic fan base, but high-information conservatives and dedicated activists all know who he is and all know that the knock on him is that he’s too boring not that he’s not a real conservative. No single endorsement matters very much, but Romney’s ability to wrack up a series of endorsements from blah plain vanilla current and former Republican elected officials probably matters a lot in a matchup against Perry.
For a general example of how endorsements matter, it’s hard to do better than the 2008 Obama-Clinton primary. It’s hard to imagine that anyone said, “wow, George Miller likes Obama (or Pat Leahy or Max Baucus), I’m going to go vote for him now.” But in the aggregate the fact that a lot of Democratic members of Congress were endorsing the guy was an important signal to activists, donors, and voters was considered a plausible and acceptable choice.