Why the Long Primary Slog is so much Worse for GOP in 2012 than for Democrats in 2008
As the Republican primary season soldiers on, you periodically hear pundits argue that in the end it will “strengthen” Mitt Romney – or whomever the ultimate winner turns out to be. That, they say, was what happened in 2008 and that is what will happen this year as well. After all, they say, the 2008 Democratic Primary battle didn’t really end until early June.
While there is a case to be made that the long Democratic 2008 Primary battle actually benefited the ultimate Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, there are four reasons why this year’s battle will inflict lasting damage on this fall’s GOP contender.
1). This year’s battle is really a contest between two very distinct factions of the Republican Party. That was not true for the Democrats in 2008.
There are basically two factions of the modern GOP:
· The Wall Street/CEO faction;
· The Evangelical/Tea Party faction.
The battle between Romney– and Santorum/Gingrich/Paul – is a proxy war for the Romney-led Wall Street/CEO faction and the Evangelical/Tea Party base of the party.
The Wall Street/CEO faction cares mainly about enacting polices that benefit America’s 1%. It exists to reduce taxes for the wealthy, give major corporations freedom to do whatever they wish – and to make as much money as possible regardless of the impact on the majority of Americans, or our health and environment.
The Wall Street/CEO faction of the GOP wants to reduce the size of the public sector and give ever increasing power to Wall Street banks and corporate CEO’s.
In general, members of the Wall Street/CEO faction could care less about social issues like abortion, birth control, gun rights, immigration or supposed “secularization” of society. But these are the core concerns of the Evangelical/Tea Party faction. And while the interests of these factions may overlap when it comes to “reducing the size of government,” the Wall Street/CEO faction of the GOP mostly views the Evangelical/Tea Party faction – and their core concerns --as cannon fodder for their electoral and issue campaigns to gain control over the levers of government.
Not surprisingly, this patronizing attitude infuriates that Evangelical/Tea Party faction, and helps explain why they “don’t trust” the Wall Street/CEO faction’s candidate for President, Mitt Romney.
Of course Romney’s patronizing, clumsy attempts to reach out to everyday voters just reinforces the anger of much of the Evangelical/Tea Party crowd. His attempts to talk “southern,” and say “y’all,” and eat grits – or his clueless announcement that his wife drives “two Cadillacs,”, his attempts to bond with NASCAR fans by telling them that he is pals with the people who own the teams rather than people who watch the races. All of this just makes matters worse – at the same time it convinces swing voters that Romney is in fact, “Mr. 1%” and “100% out of touch.”
The 2008 Democratic primary battle did not reflect a comparable contest between two factions of the Democratic coalition with distinctly different self-interests.
Personal wounds were opened, but they were not so difficult to heal as the defeat of one major faction by another.
If Romney ultimately wins the nomination – as seems likely – the Evangelical/Tea Party faction will never completely trust the nominee and will feel that they have once again lost out to the interests of the Wall Street/CEO gang.
2). In 2008, most Democratic voters were happy with their range of choices and indicated they could be satisfied with either nominee. In the 2012 GOP primary contest, this is not the case.
A CBS/New York Times poll taken a full 19 months before the election in 2008 showed 57% of Democratic Primary voters satisfied with their choices for President and 39% who wanted more choices. At the time, Hillary Clinton had a 59% positive rating and only a 17% negative rating. Barack Obama had 54% positives and 9% negatives.
But in January, 2012, a CBS poll found the reverse. It revealed that 58% of Republicans wanted more choices in the Presidential contest – and only 37% were satisfied.
Hillary Clinton had many passionate supporters in 2008, but most of them were prepared to accept Obama as the nominee. It is not at all clear that this will be true for the winner when the Republican nominating season comes to an end.
3). The longer the contest drags on, the less satisfied Republicans are with their choices – and the less they like the likely winner, Mitt Romney. That never happened to Obama.
In fact, in the CBS poll the number that wanted more choices actually increased between October and January a whopping 12%.
Worse, the more people learn about the likely Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, the less they like him.
According to a Washington Post/ABC poll in early February of this year, by better than 2 to 1, Americans say the more they learn about Romney, the less they like him. The Post reported that "even among Republicans, as many offer negative as positive assessments of him on this question.”
In other words, the longer the battle rages, the less even Republicans like Romney. Matters are even worse when it comes to independent voters since Romney believes he must pander to the Evangelical/Tea Party wing of the party at every turn to clinch the nomination.
His support for the Blunt Amendment that would limit women’s right to birth control and his vicious attacks on immigrants are alienating increasing numbers of core swing constituencies in the fall General Election.
The same was not true in the Clinton-Obama contest. Obama was never forced to take positions on controversial issues that alienated persuadable independent voters in order to win his party’s nomination. Of course that is partially true because the Evangelical/Tea Party faction holds positions that – while they were once “wedge issues” among persuadable voters – are now minority positions. Ninety-eight percent of all American women use birth control. The “personhood” amendment that would ban most forms of hormonal contraception and outlaw abortion in every case was defeated in conservative Mississippi by at 57% to 43% vote. Most Americans do not support the merger of church and state.
And positions that have a populist economic tone that are favored by the base of the Democratic Party are actually quite popular among persuadable voters as well.
Even at one of the bitterest point of his pitched battle for the nomination with Hilary Clinton – May, 2008 – Obama’s positive to negative rating didn’t drop below 55% positive to 44% negative among all voters according to a Newsweek poll from that year.
By the end of February this year, Romney’s positives to negatives ratio was underwater. Among the entire electorate he had dropped to a rating of 35% positive to 43% negative. While his positives dipped only slightly from 39% to 35%, his negatives skyrocketed by 14% -- from 29% to 43%.
4). In the 2008 Democratic Primary season lasting field structures were created, hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic volunteers were recruited, a cadre of top field organizers were trained, and an on-line fund raising base was developed. That is not the case in this year’s GOP contest.
One of the reasons why Barack Obama beat John McCain was that he ran the best field program in the history of American politics. This was largely made possible by the field training drill that resulted from the long series of primaries. The campaign began with an extraordinary field effort in Iowa and took the personnel trained there and turned them into State and District Directors who were then deployed to do multiple primary campaigns that relied heavily on field programs and engaged hundreds of thousands of highly motivated volunteers.
The long primary season allowed the Obama organization developed a culture, an army of volunteers, and a stable of highly trained and experienced field personnel the likes of which we have never seen in American politics. That is one of the reasons that Obama emerged from the primaries in such a strong position to defeat John McCain.
The Romney campaign has not used the primaries to create that kind of field apparatus. Romney does not motivate the base of his party. Barack Obama did. Whether or not the Romney campaign had chosen to devote resources to develop a large field structure, it just wouldn’t have been possible with such an unenthusiastic Republican base.
In any case they didn’t seem to try. Romney’s operation has devoted most of its spending to negative advertising aimed at beating down his challengers. That has done nothing to improve his own favorability and has delivered messages that will leave no residual benefit to the campaign once his challengers are dragged from the field of battle.
The same can be said of the Romney fund raising apparatus. Obama used the primary campaigns to develop a massive number of small, on-line donors that provided a huge portion of his financial fire-power in the General Election. Romney, on the other hand has relied virtually entirely on large donors – both the campaign itself and the Super-Pac.
So, while Barack Obama used the primary season to develop major assets for his General Election campaign, the Romney campaign has not.
The bottom line is that a drawn-out Republican primary contest will have a very different consequence for the Republican nominee this year than the equally long Democratic contest did for Barack Obama four years ago.