Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney picked up some more key endorsements this week, most notably from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), reinforcing the impression that he’s the party establishment’s top choice.

But Mark Blumenthal has an interesting analysis today, noting that GOP presidential endorsements — a fair reference point for the establishment’s preferences — are coming much more slowly in this cycle than in recent decades.

[B]y the yardstick of modern campaigns, the Republican party establishment is far from a consensus. Many of the major officeholders that traditionally endorse a presidential candidate are still on the sidelines.

Few elected officials can “deliver” votes in the manner of the mythical party bosses who controlled large blocks of convention delegates. But political scientists have demonstrated that endorsements by party leaders and activists are an important indicator of the state of consensus on a presidential nominee. And while an individual endorsement may not swing many votes, a larger pattern of endorsements can send a message about whether a candidate has what it takes to win the general election and serve as president.

In their book, “The Party Decides,” political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel and John Zaller found that a candidate’s share of endorsements just before early primary elections is often a better predictor of the ultimate nominee than early polling.

Take a look at this chart, showing the pace of GOP presidential endorsements since the 1980 race. As of October 1, the year before the election, every race has seen the Republican establishment start backing candidates in much greater numbers than this year.

This week’s endorsements apparently bumped the overall total to 14%, but that’s still far behind the normal pace.

Keep in mind, we’re not talking about one frontrunner getting endorsements, we’re talking about the party establishment offering endorsements to any of the GOP candidates. This year, key party officials are simply waiting, reluctant to throw their support to anyone.

Given how weak this field is, and the glaring flaws in each, this makes some sense. In all of the recent cycles, there’s either been a strong GOP frontrunner or credible challengers to choose from. This year, not so much. The Republican establishment wants to win like they want to breathe, but they just can’t seem to bring themselves to pick among the craven and unlikable flip-flopper, the dimwitted governor, the wild-eyed conspiracy theorist, the disgraced former Speaker, the guy who ran a pizza company, the “man on dog” guy, the radical libertarian, and the former Obama administration official. Given polls showing Romney hitting a ceiling in his national support, it seems Republican voters are probably thinking along similar lines to the Republican establishment.

So what happens now? Assuming there aren’t any scandals or career-ending gaffes between now and the earliest nominating contests, a lot of power will rest in the hands of right-wing leaders like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who enjoys enormous credibility in many key Republican circles. If a guy like DeMint backs Cain, it means Perry blew it and he’s done. If DeMint backs Perry, it signals to the right that the Texas governor will be their guy. And if DeMint bites the bullet and supports Romney, it’ll let the world know the right can tolerate him after all.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.