An early, but unofficial, entry into the 2016 Presidential race by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush jump started the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. National party leaders are working hard to see that it also ends early. This in the mistaken belief that a battle lasting deep into the primary season harmed Mitt Romney in 2012 and would likewise handicap the party’s 2016 nominee.
The theory is hold the intra-party skirmishing to a minimum, identify the nominee early, give the new standard bearer more time to organize and prepare for the General Election campaign. The problem with that reasoning is that it cuts voters in most states out of the candidate selection process depriving the ultimate nominee of a solid base of support. It also puts an early bull’s eye on the nominee giving Democrats more time to attack – which is precisely what Barack Obama did in the spring and early summer of 2012.
Those unwilling to admit the party nominated a deeply flawed candidate in 2012 point to the supposed "lengthy" primary battle as a reason for his defeat. The fact is Mitt Romney essentially wrapped up the nomination by mid-April before primary voters in some of the more populous states, including Pennsylvania and California, went to the polls. Four years earlier, John McCain closed the door on Romney and a large field of candidates by mid-February. Despite the early end to that primary season McCain also went down to defeat.
There is an argument to be made that contests lasting deep into the primary season better prepares the candidate for the fall campaign. In 2008 it was June before Hillary Clinton conceded defeat to Barack Obama. Obama, of course, beat McCain who had the luxury of having wrapped up his nomination months earlier. In 1980, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush battled until late May before Bush ended his quest for the nomination. In fact, Reagan lost many early primaries that year before finding his footing, emerging victorious and eventually defeating incumbent President Jimmy Carter in November.
The real reason the establishment wants to truncate the nomination race is so that it can exert more control over the ultimate nominee. A shorter primary and caucus season makes it more difficult for a grassroots candidate to emerge and plays to the advantage of those with the party machinery behind them. This, of course, makes it far less likely a candidate from the conservative wing of the party claims the nomination.
To push for such a scenario ignores the central lesson of the 2012 nomination process. Voters four years ago made it abundantly clear they did not want Mitt Romney as their nominee. Romney was not a front-runner until very late in the process. As alternatives to Romney emerged his campaign destroyed they one by one in an electoral version of wack-a-mole. Tim Pawlenty, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, each surged to the top of the polls only to be destroyed by Romney. Even after all of that, the movement of just a few thousand voters in the Michigan and Ohio primaries would have given the nomination to Santorum.
Voters wanted anybody but Romney, but the establishment prevailed, ended the contest half-way through the primary calendar and anointed a candidate who went on lose an eminently winnable general election. The GOP lost the presidency in 2012 not because the primary season went on too long; it lost because it ignored the message being sent by voters.
Headed into 2016 the national GOP hopes to arrive at a nominee early in the year. With a large field of highly qualified candidates that would be yet another big mistake. It is important that voters all across America get the opportunity to participate in the process. The goal should be to nominate a candidate who can win, not to nominate a candidate quickly.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected]).
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