If there is every a cautionary tale of a political party gambling on a longer primary than the 2012 GOP presidential primary is the one. Amid the mud-slinging, topsy-turvy swings of the race and the drain on the future nominee’s resources Democrats have been able to sit back and enjoy watching the GOP “implode.” The GOP of course is far from imploding but this GOP primary is showcasing that long primaries have their benefits as well as their downfalls.
Back in 2008 the tables were reversed. The GOP had decided early on John McCain as their nominee while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled it out for the Democratic nomination. The conventional wisdom was the long campaign would seriously hurt Democratic chances in the general election. Conventional wisdom did not hold. The Democratic Party came out of the convention united and proceeded to win a historic victory in 2008 with a historic candidate.
The GOP took notice. In early 2010 the RNC started floating ideas about how to modify their presidential nomination process. In 2011 the RNC made their choice. The choice being that a longer primary could produce more benefits than negatives and unite the party in the end. So the RNC made sure any state that voted before Super Tuesday had its delegates allocated on a proportional basis. Any state that did not adhere to these standards (such as FL which is a winner-take-all state) would see half its delegates stripped.
It now seems however that the GOP is having buyer’s remorse over the new rule. Whereas before the primary season began many Republicans believed a longer primary would help they now seem to be showing mixed feelings.
Personal attacks have dominated the race since New Hampshire. Leftist style attacks on Romney were launched by the Gingrich campaign. Romney hit back hard on Gingrich’s infidelity and claims of being a “Reagan conservative.” Santorum and Paul have also lobbed and seen bombs lobbed their way.
Far from doing what Republicans hoped a long primary would do many now just want Romney to wrap up the nomination by or on Super Tuesday. This might be hard considering, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul have all vowed to stay in the race.
But perhaps many Republicans are worrying a little too much. Afterall, primaries have their benefits as well as their downsides.
The most obvious benefits longer primaries give is that more voters feel like their vote matters. In a presidential race this increases turnout among partisans in more than a handful of states. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, you do not have a monopoly on selecting the nominee anymore. More voters in a plethora of states in Caucuses and primaries get to feel like their votes matter more selecting the party nominee.
For candidates primaries have their benefits as well. National infrastructure can be set up to prepare for the general. Split donating allows multiple candidates to have a realistic shot at competing in the early and possibly late stages of the race. And candidates campaigns can be toughened up and sharpened, honing a campaign message and being able to react faster and better to new attacks. Contacts with major donors and endorsements can also be established.
The GOP is witnessing the downsides of a longer primary as well. Personal attacks can become common, the presumed frontrunner can be damaged by these personal attacks. Multiple candidates can say and do things that are campaign fodder for their general election opponents. And even though voters may be excited to have the chance to cast their vote and see it mean something they may be turned off by the attacks campaigns use.
GOP worries about a longer primary being detrimental may have some merit, but those detriments are likely balanced out by the positives. Democrats thought in 2008 their brutal primary almost mortally wounded Barack Obama. Yet Obama was ahead of John McCain after the Convention permanently.
The RNC made the move to a longer primary on sound ground. They wanted more media coverage for their eventual nominee, voters got to feel like their votes meant something and the power of early voting states was diluted. But downsides also abound with a longer primary. The GOP is learning this lesson the hard way.