If there's been one familiar refrain among Republicans during this presidential primary, it's been that the hard-fought battle between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and other contenders hasn't hurt the party – arguably, it's even strengthened it.
"Don't always assume that a primary fight is a bad thing," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Mar. 7 on CNN. "In fact, I think it's the opposite. I think it's going to be great for our party."
And frequently, as a point of reference, Republicans point to the long – and, at times, bitter – intra-party battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 as evidence that an extended race to the nomination isn’t necessarily a hindrance to winning the White House.
But there are important differences between the two cycles. Some of them might serve as a warning sign for the GOP, such as less money and a more damaged brand. And some might give the party encouragement, like more enthusiasm among Republicans.
Of course, an important caveat: In some ways, it’s difficult to compare 2008 (a race without an incumbent and with two history-making primary candidates) with 2012 (when there’s a sitting president in the Oval Office).
At this point in the Democratic primary in 2008, Obama and Clinton had each heavily outraised Republicans’ fundraising haul through the first couple of months of 2012.
In February of 2008, just as the Democratic campaign had appeared to shift into a two-person race, the Obama campaign raised $55 million for the month, and had $39 million in the bank going into March. Clinton raised $35 million over the same time period, and had $29 million in cash on hand. (It’s worth noting, though, that much of Clinton’s money was reserved for the general election, and she couldn’t use in the primary season.)
Compare that to the money raised by Santorum and Romney over February, according to their own campaigns’ estimates (official numbers have not yet been filed with the Federal Election Commission). Romney raised $11.5 million in February and Santorum raised about $9 million. Romney had just $7.3 million in the bank at the end of the month, though, suggesting that his campaign is spending at a rate that could threaten to bleed him dry by November, especially if the primary continues for a while.
A discrepancy would suggest some diminished enthusiasm for the Republican candidates this cycle, at least at first glance.
But there are some important things to keep in mind: First, overall fundraising is down in 2012 versus 2008, in part due to the impact of a deep recession that onset after the 2008 primary.
More Republican money has also flowed to super PACs that support the various GOP candidates. These groups didn’t exist in the last Democratic primary, and one Romney super PAC alone, Restore Our Future, has already spent over $30 million this primary season.
Perhaps the most illuminating figures on the impact of the Republican primary campaign comes from a series of national NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls and the exit polling conducted of voters in key battleground state primaries.
By March of 2008, both Obama and Clinton enjoyed net-positive favorability ratings among the public at large (Obama: 51 positive, 28 negative; Clinton: 45 positive, 43 negative according to the March 2008 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll).
Romney and Santorum haven’t fared as well with the general public, according to this month’s numbers, also taken from the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Romney has a 28 percent positive rating among U.S. adults, and a 39 percent negative rating. Santorum has a 26 percent positive rating, and a 39 percent negative rating. They each perform much better with Republican primary voters.
And in terms of the impact on each party’s brand, the Democratic Party had a 45 percent positive rating among registered voters in March of 2008, and a 35 percent negative rating. Four years later, the Republican Party has a 32 percent positive rating, and a 43 percent negative rating.
But the GOP’s ratings represent a recovery of sorts from the party’s depths in mid-2010, when the August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from that year had the Republican Party with just a 24 percent positive rating, and a 46 percent negative rating.
Republicans are also still dealing with the fallout from an unpopular two-term president in George W. Bush, who preceded Obama. The wars Bush had started are still winding down, and Obama still warns of a return to the policies of the years that preceded him, attacking Bush by implication.
The Bush years also left Republicans with a more fractious coalition with emerging fault lines of social issues and foreign and economic policy. Given those divisions, it might be tougher for any of these candidates to capture a broader swath of the electorate.
The figures from both primaries suggest that Democrats were happier with their choice of candidates than Republicans have been this cycle.
Fifty-seven percent of Republicans who voted in the Mar. 6 Ohio primary said in exit polls that they would be satisfied with Romney as the eventual nominee.
By comparison, 73 percent of Democrats who voted in the Ohio primary four years ago said they would be satisfied if Clinton won the nomination, and 66 percent of Democrats said the same of Obama that same cycle.
Nationally, 45 percent of Republican primary voters said in the March NBC/WSJ poll that they would support Romney with enthusiasm, and 42 percent said they would support Santorum with enthusiasm.
Four years ago, in the same national poll, 60 percent of Democrats said they would vote for Clinton with enthusiasm, and 52 percent expressed enthusiastic support for Obama.
But in 2008, Democrats weren’t being measured against an incumbent president like Republicans are this cycle. The differences between the candidates were also more stylistic in 2008 than ideological, especially compared to the 2012 race in which Republicans do battle over the extent of their conservatism.
But the Democratic primary four years ago also featured two political heavyweights in Obama and Clinton, each of whom were poised to make history simply by virtue of their nomination. Obama would become the first African-American presidential nominee, and later, the nation’s first black president. Clinton would have been the first woman to top a ticket, and the first woman president if she were elected.
And Republicans can take solace in the fact that Obama is now their greatest unifier. While there might not be tremendous enthusiasm for either of the two major remaining Republican candidates, there’s a great deal of interest within the GOP about beating Obama.
A mid-February Gallup poll found that Republicans, by an 8-point margin, were more likely to say that they were enthusiastic about voting this fall compared to Democrats. And among certain key portions of Obama’s 2008 coalition, especially younger and nonwhite voters, enthusiasm was down.
But a mid-March poll, also by Gallup, found that enthusiasm for Romney and Santorum within the GOP is down from 2008; Republicans are motivated this time by voting against Obama.
And the numbers in the January NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll suggest that while Santorum and Romney might not generate tremendous enthusiasm, they’re at least acceptable. Seventy-five percent of Republican primary voters said they would be “comfortable” with Romney as the nominee, and 65 percent said the same for Santorum.