Despite grand proposals from the various candidates that could impact the insurance business, the industry remains in “wait and see” mode as the presidential race kicks into high gear, hedging their bets with campaign contributions while keeping their options open and their expectations in check.

“At this point, it is not possible to predict with any degree of certainty who the nominee of either party will be, much less the specific policies he or she will pursue that relate to [property-casualty insurance],” said Patricia Borowski, senior vice president of the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents.

Based on political donations, the insurance industry appears to have cast its “vote” for Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics–a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan research group that tracks political donations and their effects–the insurance industry (life, health and p-c) had given more money to Sen. Dodd’s campaign ($713,012, as of the end of October) than to any other candidate in either party.

That amount is nearly $100,000 more than had been given to the next highest recipient–Republican candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who was given $629,167 by the industry.

Rounding out the top five were former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani ($530,615); Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. ($525,938); and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. at ($390,513).

As an example of how swiftly fortunes can change in the political arena, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who has surged in recent weeks to be among the leading contenders for the Republican nomination, had received only $23,550 in political contributions from the insurance industry as of Oct. 29.

Sen. Dodd received the maximum $5,000 donation allowed from the Political Action Committees representing the Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, Nationwide and St. Paul Travelers, as well as $2,500 from Willis’ PAC.

PACs representing other industry groups, such as PIA, the American Insurance Association and the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, had not reported contributions to any presidential campaign as of Dec. 7, according to the Center.

The industry’s “choice” of Sen. Dodd is not surprising given his position as chair of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over most insurance legislation, and his track record on the issues most important to the industry.

“No one has anywhere near the breadth of knowledge and expertise on insurance issues as Chris Dodd,” said Joel Wood, senior vice president of government affairs for CIAB.

While Mr. Wood said he “remains hopeful” that Sen. Dodd can gain some traction and start to move up in the polls, his candidacy remains mired in the single digits.

Among the current batch of front runners, Mr. Wood said “there are pluses and minuses” for every candidate except one. An administration headed by former North Carolina senator and trial lawyer John Edwards, he said, would be “a complete disaster on all fronts” that would open the door to the legislative agenda of the trial bar and create “open hostility” to the industry.

IIABA CEO Robert Rusbuldt noted that many of the issues most important to the p-c industry–including natural catastrophes and regulatory reforms–”are not even on the radar screen” in the presidential race.

Sen. Clinton has been supportive of efforts to resolve terrorism reinsurance issues (which Mr. Rusbuldt noted is not surprising, given that she represents New York), and she did introduce the Senate version of legislation designed to help states create and maintain their own catastrophe pools.

However, Mr. Rusbuldt noted that should other issues–such as proposals for an optional federal charter–come up, “other than Sen. Dodd, they probably wouldn’t know what you were talking about.”

One area that has raised concern for independent agents, according to Mr. Rusbuldt, is proposed changes to the tax code that some candidates have suggested to pay for their agenda items. Although not specific to insurance, Mr. Rusbuldt said many independent agents own their business, and that “these are all very important issues to small-business owners.”

Given how many early primaries there are, the industry may soon have a good idea of what alternatives they face–at least in terms of how different the next president might be from the current one, and what effect that could have for p-c insurance.

“When you have a major change, he/she has a lot to say about the environment in which those issues are examined,” said Charles Chamness, president and CEO of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.

In the meantime, he said NAMIC is “closely evaluating the candidates and their message, specifically as it affects our industry.” As part of its efforts, Mr. Chamness added that NAMIC expects to “spend $400,000 in this cycle through our PAC, which is nearly double what we have spent before in helping candidates whom we feel support our philosophy.”

Once the dust from the primaries settles, Ms. Borowski noted, the industry will know a little more about what to expect, but there will still be a degree of uncertainty.

“After we know who the nominees are, we’ll be in a better position to assess the possible impact of either candidate being elected by comparing their written proposals and public statements,” she said. “That will tell us something, but it won’t tell us how each candidate would prioritize our issues, or how Congress will respond.”

Mr. Wood noted that candidates can also sometimes surprise you once they start serving their term. Indeed, a “Republican former governor of Texas,” he said, as an example, “would have been the least likely one to advance the notion of the need for regulatory reform as the Bush Treasury Department has done in the last few months.”

One of the bigger promises being made–particularly by the potential Democratic nominees–is for universal health insurance, which could potentially change the landscape for the workers’ compensation system.

Rita Nowak, PCI’s vice president of workers’ comp and policy analysis, said the group has been “watching what is going on” with the candidates and their proposals, but hasn’t seen anything that would directly impact workers’ comp.

Essentially, she said, the proposals being put forth are not designed as what she called “24-hour coverage,” in which workers’ comp and individual health insurance work in concert with each other, but instead expand on existing health care coverage plans that exist today.

However, Mr. Rusbuldt noted that depending how the election goes, insurers could see a resurfacing of efforts to adopt ergonomic reforms enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“That could resurface in a Democratic administration,” he said, adding that such a development could have “significant consequences” for the workers’ comp market.