In 2008 Democrats witnessed a seesaw primary battle between two candidates. Barack Obama won Iowa, then Hillary Clinton took New Hampshire. Clinton took Michigan (where Obama did not compete) and Nevada. Obama came back in South Carolina, but lost in Florida (Obama was on the ballot but didn’t campaign). Super Tuesday states were split. And on it went, Obama winning caucuses and states such as Wisconsin and Virginia, and Clinton coming back in blue-collar strongholds such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia. The race was competitive but not chaotic because the race was a contest between candidates. One of these at the end of the race had to consolidate support and bring in voters he or she didn’t connect with during the primary.
The Republican primary this time around is also a seesaw battle, but the seat facing Mitt Romney has been held by a parade of contenders. The result is greater uncertainty and the inability of pundits to gauge with any accuracy who will win next. The expectation, perhaps another media creation, is that Mitt Romney should be winning all of these states. Unlike the 2008 Democratic race, there doesn’t yet seem to be the recognition that some states are better for one candidate than another and that the name of the game is delegate accumulation.
It may be with the demise of Newt Gingrich’s effort that the race comes to resemble more and more the Obama-Clinton contest. Romney prevails in some states, Santorum in others. Eventually one pulls away.
That formula as we saw in 2008 has nothing to do with general-election viability. In November Obama carried Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and other Clinton strongholds.
So if we look to this year’s 2012 battle it’s possible that Romney racks up wins in a broad array of states, pulls away and then consolidates support with Santorum-friendly groups (e.g. evangelicals, Tea Partyers, rural voters). Alternatively, Santorum could prevail in enough states to get to 1,144 delegates, looking at the end of the race to reclaim Romney followers (e.g. more moderate voters, women, upscale suburbanites).
The press is anxious to test the two candidates by their ability to “sew up” the base or “go beyond his base.” But that strikes me as backward. Consolidation comes gradually or after the process ends. For now, the test is who can organize, rack up wins and put together a string of states that deliver the critical mass of delegates. Right now the inability of either to capture the entire GOP electorate doesn’t tell us anything about the general election; it tells us we have a competitive primary. Republicans should hope it is as exciting and invigorating as the Democrat 2008 battle.