Does 'GOP establishment' really exist?

The 'Republican establishment' is a coalition of disparate party actors, with different goals and motivations. The miracle is getting all those groups to agree on anyone.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Lowell, Mass., on Monday. Despite expert predictions, the GOP establishment has yet to rally around an alternative candidate.

Does the “Republican establishment” really exist? Or is it a myth, a unicorn, a flash of white in the forest at dawn?

We ask that question because the traditional GOP apparatus, if it is a cohesive force, is doing a bad job of rallying around a 2016 standard-bearer. Donald Trump remains the national front-runner. In second is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a lawmaker often at odds with elected Republican colleagues. Hopefuls running in the “establishment lane” are back in the pack, tripping each other as they stumble toward the Iowa caucuses.

In truth, the phrase “GOP establishment” is a shortcut the chattering classes use to describe a coalition of disparate party actors. The core may be elected Republican officials. Next is the circle of former officials and party organizations that coordinate lawmakers’ opinions, or try to. Outside them is the circle of lobbyists and interest groups. Fueling the whole thing is a corps of wealthy donors. The right-leaning media cheers them on from the sidelines.

If you describe it that way, it’s easier to understand why there is no single 2016 establishment favorite – yet. The miracle might be getting all those groups, with different goals and motivations, to agree on anyone. Mitt Romney did it in 2012, of course. Maybe the punditocracy underestimated that feat. It’s not just a matter of having Henry Kissinger and the ghost of Nelson Rockefeller to lunch.

A comparison of endorsements shows how Romney was better off at this point in the 2012 cycle than Marco Rubio, for example, is today. (Political scientists use the endorsements of party bigwigs such as senators and governors as a rough measure of establishment standing.)

Weeks prior to the 2012 Iowa caucuses, Romney had 121 endorsement points, according to methodology used by the FiveThirtyEight data journalism site. In the cycle prior, Sen. John McCain had acquired 99 at about the same relative time.

This time around, Jeb Bush still leads in endorsement points, with 46. Marco Rubio has some momentum, as he’s scored some congressional endorsements in recent weeks. But he’s still got only 38 points. Gov. Chris Christie has 26.

The bottom line: The Republican establishment isn’t a right-wing conspiracy. It’s a fragmented coalition waiting to see actual voters winnow the field. Of course, by then it could be too late – Trump or Cruz, the antiestablishment candidates, may have swept the early state field.

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