WASHINGTON -- An increasingly acrimonious and seemingly never-ending primary campaign was giving party insiders fits. A presidential nomination that seemed like a cakewalk to secure was beginning to cause concern. Top advisers to the opposing party's candidate were openly cheering on the food fight taking place across the aisle; their campaign had spent a week straight atop Gallup's presidential tracking poll.
This was the landscape that confronted Democrats and Republicans almost precisely four years ago, albeit with the roles reversed. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sewed up his party's nomination on March 4, 2008. Within ten days he was tied with then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in a poll among nationally registered voters. By March 19, that poll showed him up four points. By March 22, his lead had stabilized at a two-point margin: 46 percent to 44 percent.
Meanwhile, there were growing concerns that Democrats weren't getting their act together and uniting behind a candidate. On March 24, 2008, The New York Times ran the story: "A Present For McCain As The Other Side Fights."
At the moment, Republicans can savor protracted warfare between Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. As the Democratic rivals trade attacks, Mr. McCain, already the presumptive Republican nominee, has crept ahead of both in national polls.
On March 28, 2008, then-Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who had long since dropped out of the race, warned that if Clinton and Obama kept up the fighting "this nomination won't be worth much."
That same day, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told Vermont Public Radio that "there is not a very good reason for drawing" the primary out. He encouraged Clinton to withdraw in the face of difficult, if not impossible, delegate math.
John McCain, who has been making one mistake after another, is getting a free ride on those gaffes, because the Democratic candidates have to focus not on him but on each other.
That same day, McCain's adviser Mark McKinnon -- who would later leave the campaign to avoid having to work against Obama, whose character he respected -- triumphantly took in the spectacle.
"The Democrats are clawing their way to the bottom," he told Cox News Service. "By extending their nominating process, they have given McCain an enormous gift, which is the ability to run a general election campaign while the Democrats continue to tear each other down."
David Axelrod, Obama's top communications hand, seemingly agreed with his assessment, telling reporters, "We don't want a protracted Democratic primary fight that diverts us from the ultimate mission, which is to defeat the Republicans."
A March 27 op-ed in the Boston Globe, under the headline "We've seen how this drama plays out," compared the primary race to 1980, when Ted Kennedy irrevocably damaged Jimmy Carter's re-election hopes by taking a "kamikaze flight path" to the convention. The paper urged Clinton to drop out.
By April 8, 2008, the New Republic was editorializing with doom about the "Democratic Death March."
The good news is that an ugly convention fight is highly preventable. The one advantage of a scenario that's both completely hair-raising and utterly foreseeable is that everyone has an incentive to stop it. The bad news is what's not preventable: a contest that rolls into June. Even without a messy convention, the current trajectory of the primary campaign could easily destroy the party's White House prospects.
It would take until early June for Obama to clinch the Democratic nomination. And with it, all of the fretting that had accompanied the drawn-out process proved moot. The party had not blown the election. The candidate had not been permanently tarred. McCain's lead in the Gallup poll was fleeting.
That's not to suggest that the same will now happen in 2012. This Republican primary and the one Clinton and Obama waged four years ago have obvious differences, not least of which is the fact that the Democratic primary of 2008 was much closer and more tightly fought. The favorability ratings of the likely general election nominees also differ. On March 22, 2008, the HuffPost Pollster trend estimate showed Obama with a 54.2 percent favorable rating and a 33.2 percent unfavorable rating. By contrast, on March 20, 2012, Romney had a 35.7 percent favorable rating and a 48.6 percent unfavorable rating. The damage observers assumed Obama would sustain during his primary fight actually appears to have affected Romney.
Still, it's telling to see how easily campaign-related storylines can be recycled. And for the Romney campaign, perhaps, it's a bit comforting.
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