Blogging over at the Plumline, Jonathan Bernstein brings up a very interesting question:
As Pema Levy reports in a nice item, the message among neutral Republicans over the weekend was simple: It’s time to shut down GOP WH 2012 before somebody gets hurt – in particular, the “somebody” being the very likely but ever-vulnerable Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. As she notes, this replaces a previous Republican case of Obama-Clinton envy, in which many GOP insiders decided that Barack Obama helped himself in 2008 by fighting a long nomination battle.
There’s inconclusive political science literature about the effects of divisive primaries. Those studying the problem have recognized two competing effects. On the one hand, a hard-fought primary may energize the party and the winning campaign may have been forced to build an effective electioneering operation; on the other, the losing side may defect or stay home in the general election, and attacks made by same-party candidates may lend credibility to general election attacks from the other party.
There’s no particular reason to believe going in which of these effects are strong; it’s an empirical question, and one that’s proved difficult to answer. What’s more, most studies have been in statewide or House races. It’s not clear how any of this translates into presidential elections, and it’s harder to assess presidential races effectively because there just aren’t that many of them.
What we have happening in the primary this year is nothing like the Obama/Clinton battle of 2008. In 2008 people chose a candidate they liked and supported them. This year Republicans are picking a candidate they don't like then choosing an alternative, with the only real exception being the Ron Paul supporters.
That is a big problem.
When Hillary Clinton finally conceded to Barack Obama and endorsed him at the 2008 DNC convention, a majority of Clinton voters listened and followed. Sure there were some that didn't, but overall a majority did. This helped propel Obama to the White House. I don't think we will see that same thing happen this year.
Any minute now Jon Huntsman is set to announce he is dropping out of the race and endorsing Mitt Romney. Will his supporters listen to him? With the growing popularity of Rick Santorum I don't think that is a given. There are still many in the Republican electorate looking for the "anybody but Mitt" candidate. To some that is Newt Gingrich and to some that is Rick Santorum. Oh and a few still believe that Rick Perry could be that guy, but we know the truth there.
Another issue to look at is a big difference between Republican voters and Democratic ones when it comes to the media. The Republicans have long pushed the whole "liberal media" meme. The fact that the media is pushing out Romney is the presumed nominee doesn't sit well with these voters. That alone will help propel the other candidates, though the effect isn't yet known.
But the biggest issue of all is voter enthusiasm. How many Republican voters can say they are actually "excited" about their candidate? Going by the two exit polls we have as of now, not many. I also don't see this primary causing any person to be more enthusiastic about their pick. If anything the opposite will happen as attack ads pick up and the primary battle lingers on. Again, this will really hurt the GOP in the fall.
So my opinion is that the GOP needs as much time as they can get to rally the troops behind a single candidate. The longer the primary battle goes on the less time they will have to do that and the greater their chances of defeat will be in the fall. The GOP doesn't need a primary battle like the Democrats had in 2008. They need an actual nominee now and they need to start repairing the image of that candidate from the damage inflicted by the other's in the field. That's a pretty big undertaking and one that is going to be interesting to watch.