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.