Romney vs. Santorum: Why it's not a replay of Obama vs. Clinton

GOP leaders hoped a long primary season would engage voters and help build organization, just as it had for Barack Obama in 2008. They didn't count on how toxic the 2012 race would turn.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a rally on March 7, in Lenexa, Kan.
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When the Republican National Committee took steps to prolong the party’s presidential nomination race, party leaders hoped that more states than the usual handful would play a role in selecting the nominee. That worked.

More states involved means more voters engaged, more volunteers identified, more organization built. Certainly, that model helped Barack Obama organize his general election campaign and win the presidency, they reasoned.

What the Republicans weren’t counting on was how nasty their race would turn, driving down the public’s view of their top candidates.

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The latest Pew Research Center poll shows Republican front-runner Mitt Romney at just 29 percent favorability among all adult Americans and Rick Santorum, his top challenger, at 27 percent. At this point four years ago, when Mr. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were duking it out for the Democratic nomination, Obama’s favorability was 56 percent, Mrs. Clinton was at 50 percent, and presumptive GOP nominee John McCain was at 45 percent.

Today, even among Republicans, Mr. Romney is viewed favorably by only 58 percent and Mr. Santorum by only 53 percent. In March 2008, both Obama and Clinton scored in the 70s among Democrats.

The Democrats weren’t negative about the range of choices that they had, and that’s an important difference,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, at a Monitor breakfast Wednesday.

In February 2008 – after the Super Tuesday contests, and therefore a roughly equivalent moment in the current GOP race – Pew found that 80 percent of Democrats viewed their presidential field as either “excellent” or “good.” Most Clinton supporters had a favorable view of Obama and vice versa.

“You didn’t see the level of dissatisfaction that you see among the Republicans [today], where just slightly under half are saying they have good candidates this year overall,” says Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center. “When you look at how the Santorum backers feel about Romney and vice versa, there’s a real lack of enthusiasm and a lack of commitment there.” 

Aside from the attacks Republicans are lobbing at each other, there’s another aspect of the 2012 race that could be making it more difficult for the party to reach consensus on a nominee: the emergence of a significant bloc in the Republican base that is “much more ideological than any group we’ve ever identified, right or left,” Mr. Kohut says.

His data come from the Pew center’s May 2011 “political typology” report, a major survey that classifies voters within party groups. Some 11 percent of registered voters are “staunch conservatives,” many of them highly engaged tea party supporters. These voters are very conservative across the board on the size and role of government, on economics, foreign policy, and social issues.

“That has a lot to do with the rancorous nature of this campaign,” Kohut says.

Some leading Republicans have warned that the prolonged primary process – which awards delegates proportionally early in the season, as opposed to winner-take-all – is a bad idea, because it’s keeping the party focused on its internal differences, rather than on defeating Obama. It has sparked fairly intense speculation that the nomination battle will be resolved at a brokered or contested convention. Some GOP activists worry that the party brand has suffered long-term damage.

But architects of the system disagree. As long as the trailing candidates drop out of the race before the Republican National Convention in late August, the presumptive nominee will have plenty of time to regroup and build a strong campaign against Obama, says Saul Anuzis, Republican national committeeman from Michigan and a designer of the new primary rules.  

“Romney is earning this one state at a time, and that’s the way it ought to be,” says Mr. Anuzis, who backs Romney. “The point was to create an open process and encourage rational thought.”

After a hard-fought nomination race, the goal of the convention is to unite the party and excite the base, Anuzis says. But, he adds, “the question is, how long will our hangover be from this binge that we’re on.”    

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