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Impact of GOP primary discord is debatable

By Shira Schoenberg
Globe Correspondent / February 28, 2012
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The likely-to-be-lengthy Republican nominating battle isn’t doing the Republican candidates any favors. President Obama is pulling ahead of the Republicans in head-to-head polls. Voters are viewing all the Republican candidates less favorably than they did several months ago, with the exception of Rick Santorum, who barely registered in the polls until January.

But will it matter in November?

Some analysts say a drawn-out primary may mean little to general election voters, who will be more focused on events that take place once the nominee is chosen. Democrats say they believe the negativity of the Republican campaign will hurt the eventual GOP nominee; but Republicans argue that GOP voters’ antipathy toward Obama is stronger than their intraparty disagreements.

“Most of the people who are currently divided among Republicans . . . there’s a uniting factor waiting out there in the wings,’’ said Tom Rath, a senior adviser to Republican candidate Mitt Romney and a longtime New Hampshire Republican strategist. “That’s Barack Obama.’’

Four years ago, John McCain wrapped up the Republican nomination on March 5. Hillary Clinton did not concede the Democratic nomination to Obama until June 7. Obama went on to win the presidency despite some concerns that a lengthy nominating process would hurt the Democrats.

Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said the Democratic Party was split in 2008, just as the Republican Party is today. “They did manage to paper over that, in part because Hillary and Obama worked out their differences before the convention and had a unified convention,’’ Fowler said.

But there are differences. Fowler said the personal attacks in the Republican campaign today are heating up earlier than in the 2008 race. Turnout in several primaries has been down.

“It seems as if the fight has been demoralizing to the base,’’ Fowler said.

Rath said the primary is a proving ground. When a candidate wins the nomination, he said, “That ability to survive this kind of a test will make that candidate better and stronger.’’

But Rath said one major difference from 2008 is that Democrats have an incumbent president who can get his message out to voters and the media.

This race appears to be harming the Republicans. A Politico/George Washington University poll out yesterday found that Obama’s approval ratings rose by 9 points over the last four months. Obama led Romney, his closest Republican opponent, by 10 points, compared with a 6-point lead in November. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released two weeks ago found Obama had opened his strongest lead against Romney. The same poll showed that more than half of voters were not happy with what they were hearing from the Republican candidates.

So far, no Republican has emerged as a clear victor. A new system put in place by the Republican Party awards delegates proportionally in the early voting states, prolonging the race and giving candidates an incentive to stay in for longer.

Kathy Sullivan, a Democratic National Committeewoman from New Hampshire who was Clinton’s state cochairwoman in 2008 and now volunteers for Obama, said she believes the Republicans’ negative advertising and apparent weaknesses today will hurt them in November.

“These are the first impressions for a lot of voters with respect to this field, and first impressions matter,’’ Sullivan said. “The first impressions a lot of folks are getting, is one candidate - Santorum - who’s crazy, Gingrich is just bombastic and self-aggrandizing, Romney who just comes off as clueless and out of touch.’’

Democrats probably will attack the Republican nominee with statements the candidate made on the primary trail, focusing on antiunion sentiments that could harm Romney with working class voters, or on Santorum’s comment calling Obama a snob for encouraging everyone to go to college. Democrats are hoping that far-right positions the GOP candidates have taken on social issues could hurt them with independent voters. Republican candidates have also adopted lines of attack that could easily be used by Democrats, hitting Romney for being a flip-flopper and criticizing his record at Bain Capital.

But David Hopkins, assistant professor of political science at Boston College, said the most likely scenario is that the race will take more twists and turns during the general election season, and no one will remember the primary.

“Elites see a benefit to rallying around their standard-bearer once the process is over,’’ Hopkins said. “They don’t see a lot of benefit to continuing whatever bad-mouthing was going on. The voters respond to that.’’

The exception, he said, would be if GOP divisions continue into the Republican National Convention in August, leaving less time for the party to coalesce around its nominee.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.

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