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Surviving the grueling electoral gauntlet

BY DANIEL TAIBLESON | JANUARY 26, 2012 7:20 AM

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Running for major political office is often compared to "running the gauntlet." The term stems from the punitive act of forcing a person to run between two parallel columns of armed men who strike him as he passes. Considering the volatility and brutality of this most recent Republican nomination cycle, this comparison has rarely felt more apt.

Perhaps more importantly, it appears that this has been by design. When the Republican Party made the decision to require early states to divvy delegates proportionally rather than winner-take-all, GOP officials might have thought they were creating an electoral process better suited to producing a stronger, battle-tested candidate. However, what they have really done is condemned their eventual nominee to enter the general election as the weakened standard bearer of a fractured party.

There is certainly some merit to the argument that long competitive primaries make for stronger candidates. They force candidates to build strong campaign infrastructures that are better able to raise money and mobilize voters. They afford candidates an opportunity to air their faults early in the process when they are less likely to influence general-election voters. Furthermore, they give prospective nominees a chance to test and hone their messages.

Viewed in isolation, these possible rewards seem compelling. However, when weighed against the very real and predictable costs exposed by an entire field of research, it becomes clear that the benefits are few and the damage real.

University of Iowa Associate Professor Cary Covington has noted that protracted primaries are prone to exposing party divisions and that Republicans might have forfeited a very real advantage by restructuring their nomination process.

"The Republican Party's practice of relying on winner-take-all primaries was seen as an advantage over the Democrats' reliance on more proportional rules, because it allowed a Republican to deliver a knockout blow on Super Tuesday," he said. "Protracted nominating contests weaken the eventual candidate. They tend to undermine party unity, making it more difficult to pull together an enthusiastic broad base of support."

In reflecting upon the 2008 Democratic nomination process, Robert Putnam (of *Bowling Alone* fame) came to a similar conclusion. Putnam points out that it is in party's interest to avoid protracted nomination battles, because the longer the process goes on, the more likely competitiveness will turn into divisiveness. He goes on to say that the onus is on the party to avoid this; failing to do so introduces the very real risk that party divisions will not heal by the time the general election comes about.

Further reinforcing the above, a paper penned by a team of professors from the University of Georgia and the University of New Mexico explored how the nature of primaries influenced presidential-election outcomes between 1948 and 2004. In their analysis, they found that divisive and prolonged primaries are prone to harming a nominee's performance in the general election.

More precisely, they found "that a divided party will lose up to 5 percent nationally in the general election, as well as losing up to 2 percent in individual states that had divisive state primaries."

This brings me back to the current Republican nomination process. Jan. 21 marked a historic moment in Republican presidential-nomination politics. Never before have three Republicans split three early states. This, in tandem with the unusual volatility of the primary cycle to date (thanks to a series of boom-bust candidacies), makes it highly likely that the primary process will drag on well beyond Super Tuesday (perhaps as intended).

I imagine the Republican establishment and even many Republican primary voters think they are doing themselves a favor by running their prospective nominees through as long a gauntlet as possible — but there is little historical precedent to support this thinking.

Moreover, recent data have revealed that this divisive primary process is damaging the current establishment favorite, former Gov. Mitt Romney. Thanks to a series of attacks levied by former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Romney's general awkwardness in responding to them, Romney has experienced a 19-point jump in his national unfavorable numbers. And in case you wondering whether this was resonating in any way, Fox News' exit polling found that 13 percent of South Carolina primary voters (many of whom voted for Gingrich) would refuse to vote for Romney in the general election.

If Romney loses to Gingrich in Florida, this Republican contest will likely become a far bloodier process. As of Tuesday, a Washington Post poll found that Romney and Gingrich have net favorability ratings of minus-18 and minus-22, respectively.

This is great news for Democrats and bad news for Republicans no matter who the nominee is. False wisdom has instilled in the Republican officials the false notion that they are helping themselves in the long run. It is too bad that they are not.


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