Primarily, the Primaries Work
May 3, 2012
Just as we once said goodbye to Michele and Jon and Rick Perry and Rick Santorum and Herman and before the primaries even began to Tim Pawlenty so now we say goodbye to Newt.
Primarily, the primaries work. They weed out the contenders without ideas appealing to the majority of the party and they weed out those contenders who cannot raise enough money to continue.
The latest casualty from the GOP field, Newt Gingrich, was one of the more mean spirited candidates in the field. His bitter comments against the nominee Mitt Romney will be used in many Democratic ads in the general election.
The former Speaker would have been better advised to stay on the sidelines for this primary season. Gingrich was bouncing checks and getting bitten by penguins, which were both omens from the financial and Greek gods that it was time to get out. The voters have spoken and he is now gone along with the others. Representative Paul is still somewhere out there campaigning in his own unique and interesting fashion. But Romney’s views, tenacity and money have won the day for the 2012 primaries.
With the inevitable end to the 2012 primary season, what have we learned so far about America’s presidential primary season? The obvious conclusion is that extended primaries are here to stay. Rule changes, first unveiled in 2008, have reduced the importance of the early states. Likewise, the emergence of Super PACs enable a single wealthy donor to keep candidates competing, when they would otherwise have retired from the contest far earlier. These two major changes to the primary system will lengthen the primary season for the foreseeable future.
Regardless of the new changes, one old rule continues to survive, the requirement to raise as much money as possible. As political history has shown us, competing in the primaries and general election requires enormous sums of money. Any candidate that dreams of throwing their name in the presidential hat better have the innate ability to raise a multitude of campaign contributions. With the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission ruling, this rule has been multiplied. Third party interest groups, also known as Super PACs, can spend an unlimited amount of money on television and radio advertisements. Officially, candidates and campaign staffers are prohibited from coordinating with Super PACs, however, any legitimate candidate will need a Super PAC to raise money and compete against other candidates in the broadcast media markets. Without a Super PAC, a candidate will easily lose the battle for the airwaves.
The other significant change in the political landscape is the proportional distribution of delegates by both political parties. In 2008, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama engaged in an epic primary battle that lasted until the final primary state. In 2012, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were both engaged in a similar struggle as they vied to emerge as the nominee. While in 2008 most considered the Democratic fight to last so long because of the star power of both candidates, this is true. In 2012, most observers considered that the Republican fight lasted so long was because the candidates were weak, this is also true. The reality is that the playing field has changed in a way that allows any candidate to argue that they still have a reason to stay in the race. Losing a state while still accumulating delegates gives politicians just enough encouragement to defray any humiliation after an election night loss. How many times did we see a losing candidate take the podium and claim victory while losing the state?
This is all possible because of party factions. Any candidate that can find their particular faction within their respective party will be able to receive delegates from them. Within each party there are certain factions, whether they’re religious conservatives, tea-party conservatives, foreign policy hawks, libertarians or economic conservatives of the Republican Party or anti-war doves, social liberals, economic liberals, women or minorities of the Democratic Party. A candidate that can rally a single group will be able to consolidate delegates, raise money and prolong the race that might otherwise not support weaker candidates. Any winning primary candidate must now be capable of fighting in all 50 states, plus territories, to beat off all the political opponent’s that can coalesce around a particular group, ideology or region.
There are some benefits that the extended primary season may have on the eventual nominee. Without the back and forth struggle through multiple state-wide elections, Romney might be less prepared to take on a formidable incumbent president. While Santorum was competing in the primaries, he exposed Romney’s weaknesses for all to see, giving time for the Romney campaign to properly prepare to defend those weaknesses. Now is the time for the Romney campaign to make those “half-time” adjustments as they unofficially begin the general election.
It will be interesting to see how much damage he inflicted on Mitt Romney. Will his heated remarks last into the general election or be forgotten almost as quickly as the public has forgotten Rick Santorum? Santorum’s quote that Mitt Romney would be the “worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama,” will no doubt be a thorn in Romney’s side. Reading the transcript, clearly Santorum was referencing that Romney would be the worst Republican in terms of healthcare, but this will not matter as the Obama campaign will surely fashion the quote into a well designed attack ad on television and radio. Santorum also hurled some harsh criticisms at Romney’s chief-of-staff who referred to finishing the primary as an Etch-A-Sketch, surmising that Romney can simply shake away everything that the candidate had previously campaigned on. The only remaining question is whether or not the Santorum-Romney battles will leave the future nominee too scarred and weak against Obama.
Interestingly, the extended primary season is exactly what the people wanted. Voters felt disenfranchised by the disproportionate amount of influence that Iowa and New Hampshire held on nominating the future president. For campaign finance reformers attempting to limit the influence of money in politics, the trend isn’t positive as our electoral process will continue to require more and more money to compete. With the campaign system essentially at the mercy of the free market, there’s no limitation to the amount of money that can be raised and spent. Welcome to the modern primary…
Will the primaries look any different four years from now? Probably not.
Money will once again rule the day with ideas still important to a lesser degree in getting voters to go to the polling places.
And at this time in 2016 we will be recalling names of candidates who thought they would be the GOP nominee but whose names will be lost to history just as we can now hardly remember Jon, Michele, Rick, Rick, Herman and now Newt…
*Authored by Robert J. Guttman and Dustin Taylor
Robert J. Guttman teaches courses on presidential politics at Johns Hopkins University, Center for Advanced Governmental Studies. Dustin Taylor is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Center for Advanced Governmental Studies and the executive director at Reform Our Republic.