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Posted by on Feb 8, 2012 in At TMV | 10 comments

Why the 2012 GOP Primary is NOT like the 2008 Democratic Primary

One of the arguments in defense of the extended 2012 GOP primary is that it will strengthen the eventual nominee for the general election, much as the 2008 primary did for Obama. By airing all the dirty laundry in the spring, preparing the candidates for anticipated general election attacks, and demonstrating an ability to both fight and reach out to lots of voters, an extended primary can certainly bolster a party’s nominee.

But is that happening for Romney – still the likely nominee? By all indications it is not. The best evidence is the recent Washington Post/ABC poll showing that, by a 2 to 1 margin, the more voters learn about Romney the less they like him. Add to that the visceral nature of the attacks between Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul and you have the makings of a disastrous fall general election. Enthusiasm is actually dropping among Republicans as the primary drags on.

But the 2008 Democratic primary had plenty of bitterness too. As the primaries moved along supporters of Obama and Clinton dug in and became even more personally attached to their candidate – and repulsed by the opposition – such that the threat of widespread defection of Hillary’s supporters to the GOP seemed a very real possibility. That was, after all, one of the rationales for the Sarah Palin nomination.

That didn’t happen, of course. And it could be that the GOP primary voters will rally around Romney in the end as well, just as Democrats did for Obama in 2008.

But there is a significant difference between the two primaries that often gets lost in all the horse-race coverage. Think of one of those U-shaped magnets that attracts hundreds of little iron filings. Imagine, for a moment, that the filings were either negatively charged or positively charged and so would be attracted only to the opposite pole on the magnet. That’s what the 2008 primary was like for Democrats. Half the filings went one way and half to the other.

The demographic differences between Hillary and Obama supporters were stark. Clinton’s supporters tended to include older voters, blue collar whites, Latinos, feminists, Appalachian voters, and machine Democrats. Obama’s backers were a coalition of generally younger voters, socially liberal suburban whites, disgruntled Independents and African Americans. The policy differences between Clinton and Obama were quite small; ironically enough, the biggest disagreement had to do with the health care mandate, which Obama opposed at the time but subsequently included in his health bill. Continuing with the magnet analogy, Obama’s voters were attracted to one pole of the magnet while Clinton’s were drawn to the other pole. The energy was dynamic, exciting and historic – very few Democrats yearned for “somebody else” (though Edwards and Kucinich carried their share for a while).

In 2012, the GOP primary electorate is actually much more homogenous. Racially it is well over 90% white – in some cases 99% white. The differences of religion (Mormon v. evangelical v. conservative Catholic) and economic class are there, to be sure. But the common desire to defeat Obama overcomes most of these demographic differences. And while the Tea Party is engaged in a running battle with the GOP establishment, the ideology of Republican voters is still, almost universally, conservative.

And yet, it is as if the iron filings were all negatively charged and the major GOP candidates were ALSO negatively charged. In other words, instead of attracting voters, the candidates keep repelling voters to the other side (or sides, if we want to imagine extra negatively charged poles…). Identity politics plays a role, but the utter disenchantment with the field is the defining characteristic of this primary. Unlike spirited insurgent primaries like Reagan-Ford in 1976 or Bush-Dole-Robertson in 1988, or Bush-McCain in 2000, this primary seems to be defined by who the primary electorate is repulsed by least. Depressed turnout is the result, and demoralization for the fall is the likely outcome.

A long and protracted primary can help or hinder a general election candidate, depending on the historic context, the personalities of the candidates, the demographic breakdown of the electorate, the ideological stakes and various other factors. As of now, it appears that the extended GOP primary is not producing the sort of energy that the 2008 Democratic primary generated. Quite the opposite, which is why so many GOP insiders are anxious for the process to wrap up. And it is why the real winner of the GOP primary so far is Barack Obama.

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  • RP

    There is one very different condition that existed in 2008 that does not exist today.

    The country was in turmoil due to the pending economic collapse where McCain actually suspended his campaign to return to Washington for economic talks and strategy sessions as well as the country was tired of “W” and his policies. The moderates and independant voters wanted change. So the inner-party fighting between Clinton and Obama did not have the same impact it is having on the GOP today.

    Another issue is the general position of many voters in the country. There are many more moderates than far left or far right liberals or conservatives. And it is much easier for a democrat to attract these voters than the GOP. When given a choice of a candidate that will control your personal social values or control your wallet, voters will choose those that control the wallet for freedom to choose, like reproductive rights.

    After all is said and done, watch the GOP place more emphasis on capturing the Senate and holding the House. That will provide them the controls they seek and the control they are given by the constitution. The President can not do anything other than foreign policy without the Senate and House approving legislation he signs.

  • slamfu

    “The President can not do anything other than foreign policy without the Senate and House approving legislation he signs.”

    Man is that ever true. But as the 2008-2010 shows he can’t do much with it either.

    I think the main difference between 2008 and 2012 is that 2008 the candidates were at least competent. McCain may have some policies I don’t like, but I could at least see him in the Oval without wrecking everything. Even Romney back then was not as bad as he is today, practically flip flopping from sentence to sentence as he caters to whoever is in front of him with an absurd abandon.

    I could even have seen Hillary in the oval if it weren’t for the fact that she was related to a former president, and was going to succeed a president who was related to the one before that. Would have taken us too close to feudal succession at that point for my tastes.

    But this year’s crop of GOP candidates is staggeringly bad. Every single one of them is looking at the conservative policies of the Bush administration that were empirically bad for this nation and saying “MORE MORE OF THE SAME!”. The voters who swallow every talking point spewed from Rush, Hannity, and the religious right without thinking have taken over the GOP and the middle isn’t going to go anywhere near them come November.

  • roro80

    It’s a well written article, good points.

    I also agree with slamfu that the reason that the extending primary is turning off voters is the utter lack of competence of the GOP candidates. In 2008, there were two extremely strong candidates, and even beyond those two, most of the candidates vying for the nomination would have been ok compared to W. It was a strong field, overall, and the two main candidates just got better under the pressure of the race. This group of 2012 GOP candidates are just falling apart, mostly because they were weak to begin with.

  • bluebelle

    Agree with roro– most Democrats would have been thrilled to have either Hillary or Obama as the nominee. Their stands on policy were almost identical. Many faced with the choice wanted them both on the same ticket. Yes, the Clinton followers were ticked– but not enough to keep them at home or to push them into the McCain camp.
    This is not true of the Republican candidates. We’ve seen how many different candidates take the lead in polling?? And one by one they lost it when more was revealed about their character or past record or inability to create enthusiasm.

  • slamfu

    What surprises me about the rotating front runner thing is that with the exception of Romney, the faults and flaws in the others were pretty well documented. A routine vetting should have shown how they would not play out well under national scrutiny. Romney’s drawbacks are coming to light and being generated fresh every time he changes his positions. Basically Romney seems to be getting worse, the the rest were pretty obviously bad to start with and rode a wave of positive PR until voters scratched the surface. Its really like the entire GOP machine is phoning this one in. I can only explain it by:

    1) All the decent presidential candidates have been forced out of the party or silenced by the extreme right of the GOP

    2) All the decent presidential candidates have seen that Obama is too strong to beat easily as predicted, and are waiting until ’16 to give it a go

    3) The GOP voting pool for the primaries is actually comprised of nothing but 1% coddling, middle American screwing, foreign policy ignorant, gay bashing, immigrant bashing, religiously persecuted white christians.

    I’m sure its a mix of these, but watching the primaries has been a look through a strange window into GOP politics. Awhile ago when the Tea Party was ramping up I thought they would be long term good short term bad for the GOP. That the ultra conservatives would force all the “RINO’s” out leaving the pure, distilled absurdity of the far right worldview on display for the voters. At that point, the American people would see it for how lacking in merit it is, and the far right would be shoved back down into the minority where they should be and the real GOP, who stood for fiscal responsibility and so many other things that I like, could come back. Basically the adults would be back in charge. It would appear that it is happening now, and hopefully the GOP can swing back to the middle after this year’s elections and we can have a conservative party that can actually be worthwhile.

  • bluebelle

    Note to Mitt Romney: It may be time to rehire your debate coach– (I know you like firing people – but lets face it– ya gotta dance with the one that brung ya!)

  • The_Ohioan


    I pick number 2. The possibles are as interested as anyone, but don’t want to get into the pit until 2016 or the Tea Party folds whichever comes first.

    BTW did you mean short term and long term the way it’s stated? Just askin’.

  • Rcoutme

    I think he meant it in reverse. Meanwhile, I happen to believe that 1 and 2 (of Slamfu’s list) are very, very related.

    The (sort of ) current Republican Party is ideologically almost the same as the Tea Party. That is both stupid and dangerous. Stupid because most voters will not support such policies. Dangerous because if those policies were put in place the country would be a much worse place to live.

    In a year when Romney is being accused of, and getting hammered for, being too moderate (as near an oxymoron as one can get without actually embracing it), why would any decent politician want to run? All those politicians (on the right) who have decent ideas are, almost by definition, going to embrace a sort of middle-of-the-road position. Anyone doing that gets ridiculed by the debate audience.

    Ronald Reagan (whom all the R candidates like to venerate) could not possibly run today with his record (if his name were some other). Richard Nixon would be called a traitor–not because of his illegal activities, but because of his accomplishments. When the Democrat in the office is being equated to Chairman Mao while moving to the right of Richard Nixon, no rational person would run for the nomination of the name-callers.

  • slamfu

    No I meant it like I wrote it. Sure the Tea Party was able to get some people in there, but the extreme views has cost the GOP already. After another year or two, which I consider short term, I think most of the GOP and those in the middle who would like to vote GOP, will force out the far rights and they can go back to being a strong party. The GOP is far weaker than it seems right now. Sure they get all the press, but its all bad. Boehner fighting with Cantor, they are obstructing, the govt is going to shut down because GOP folks want to not deal with the debt ceiling even though that should be automatic, etc…. The GOP has only gotten weaker since 2010, and the Primaries are the most glaring proof of what happens when you let the far right whackjobs grab the steering wheel.

  • bluebelle

    The GOP’s message and candidates are weaker, and they are in fact in disarray BUT their fundraising has gotten a lot stronger with Citizens’ United –letting any billionaire kook pick a candidate or an elected official.

    That is a huge game changer. 94% of the time the guy with the most money wins. That means that Scott Walker wins the post recall election. Mitt Romney wins because he can outspend opponents 40:1.

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