After Florida: Why a long GOP race could be a good thing

As the dust settles from the Florida Republican primary, the race for the Republican nomination remains unsettled. At this point, it's hard to see the contest settled at least until some time in March, as there will only be a handful of primaries and caucuses until March, when a series of "Super Tuesday" contests will award large numbers of delegates.

While some Republicans think a prolonged nomination contest will divide the party, raise negatives with swing voters, and bleed the eventual nominee dry, recent political history suggests that such a drawn-out contest does not necessarily mean defeat. This being the case, perhaps Republicans should relax and allow the candidates more time to work a larger number of states and prove themselves capable of campaigning in multiple states over a long period of time.

Even though Republicans have traditionally preferred short contests, afraid of the potential fallout from a protracted nomination contest, each of the last three elections where Democrats switched control of the White House from the GOP were prolonged contests:

  • In 1976, the race wasn't decided until June, when President Jimmy Carter secured enough delegates to win the nomination, beating out seven other candidates who carried at least one state each.
  • In 1992, the Democratic nomination contest remained open well into the spring, settled once President Bill Clinton edged out former (and now current) California Governor Jerry Brown in the California primary.
  • In 2008, it took until June for Barack Obama to prevail over Hillary Clinton, who won more primary votes, but lost the nomination when Obama secured more committments from super-delegates.

With contests in four states concluded, three candidates have earned first place finishes - Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum - and in doing so, have been able to clear a number of lesser candidates out of the race. While the field is beginning to consolidate, which is an obvious prerequisite to picking the eventual nominee, indications are that the delegate sweep which traditionally decides the nominee shortly following the South Carolina primary has yet to begin.

While Romney was able to make a strong comeback in Florid after losing the South Carolina primary, the average of nationwide polling by RealClearPolitics shows that Newt Gingrich remains a slight favorite among Republican voters, a position which has changed hands several times over the last six months. Polling also indicates that both Gingrich and Romney hold leads in several of the seven states which will hold primaries and caucuses in February, as well as the twelve states which vote in the first Super Tuesday on March 6 (both Gingrich and Romney's home states - Georgia and Massachusetts - will cast ballots on this date).

After March 6, roughly forty percent of the 2,286 delegates will have been awarded. Based upon the results so far, as well as recent polling from upcoming states, it's possible that no candidate will be anywhere near the 1,144 delegates which is needed to declare victory. Unless the race shakes up and one candidate is able to show a clear trend to sweep the upcoming primaries and caucuses, Republicans should expect a long contest which looks more like a traditional Democratic contest than their own.

While the Democratic Party's experience with winning after long nomination contests suggests such a race may not hurt the eventual Republican nominee, there be other good reasons for a longer nomination contest.

Having run previously, there's not much out there about Ron Paul and Mitt Romney which likely hasn't come out already, both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are first-time candidates. We've seen a barrage of criticisms leveled against Gingrich by former colleagues in the last week or so, information that might otherwise have lurked until used later by Democrats should he been the nominee. It's possible other information will surface over the next few weeks, giving Republicans a fuller look at their choices.

The fall contest will be a long march. In 1996, which was the last time Democrats worked to re-elect a President, their campaign efforts began once Bob Dole was the apparent nominee. A GOP candidate decided after a few contests in a matter of weeks may not be as prepared for a grueling contest as one who prevails after competing in a dozen or more states over the course of three or four months. As the fall campaign will likely focus on about a dozen swing states, perhaps Republicans should expect their nominee to prove they can compete in at least that many states.

A final point worth considering is that these early contests include many of the likely swing states. These states include Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. This would allow candidates to introduce themselves to voters in these swing states early, familiarize themselves with how to campaign in those states, and develop organizations which could be reactivated later on once they win the nomination. Also, contested races tend to stir up the party activists and their voter bases far more than a ho-hum race. As the Democrats are already aggressively organizing their 2012 campaign machine, Republicans can't start soon enough and having to work those states early could provide a much-needed head start.

While Republican voters have historically sought to make their nomination contests quick and clean coronations, this year's contest is looking more like rough and tumble prize fight. There's much to suggest there is little to lose and much to gain by a putting their candidates through a more grueling path to the nomination, so Republicans might be wise to sit back, enjoy the show and expect the candidates to work harder for the nomination this year.

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