Republicans like to say their current primary fight is "just like" the 2008 primary between Obama and Clinton -- but it's just wishful thinking.
Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, Michele Bachmann and others think a bruising battle toughens the victor, and is "just like" the Obama-Clinton race in 2008. But there are important differences between the two elections, some that may create difficulties for the eventual GOP nominee.
Democratic voters were satisfied with their options, Republican are not: In January 2008, NBC/WSJ found 81% of Democrats satisfied with their options for president. However, this week's CNN/ORC poll found only 55% of Republicans satisfied, with 44% dissatisfied. And this is not a new or unique finding. In this volatile race, dissatisfaction among GOP voters is one of the only constants (CBS/NYT trend data).
Given this dissatisfaction with the field, the eventual nominee may have a tougher time uniting his base than Obama did in 2008.
Democrats were excited and turned out in record numbers, Republicans have not: the enthusiasm that propelled Republicans to majority control of the House in 2010 has not carried over to 2012. Just 38% of Republican primary voters are "more enthusiastic" about voting in 2012 than in previous elections. In 2008, 58% of Democratic primary voters were more excited about voting than usual.
In another key indicator of enthusiasm, voter turnout, this year's Republicans again lag behind Democrats in 2008. Democrats smashed turnout records in Iowa, New Hampshire, and several other states. This year, Republican turnout has lagged with fewer out to vote in Nevada, Wisconsin and Florida than in 2008. (Talking Points Memo put together this map tracking 2012 turnout.)
The Republican candidates' images are deteriorating; Obama's and Clinton's did not: NBC/WSJ polling in early 2008 shows Obama and Clinton net-favorable among voters nationwide despite their bitter primary fight. The same is not true for current GOP contenders. Romney and Gingrich's negatives have jumped in recent months, and this week Pew found none of the remaining GOP candidates are net-favorable (something true in CBS/NYT polling last month, and Margie covered here).
Clinton & Obama faced less pressure to prove they were "severely liberal": because similar numbers of Democrats found both Clinton and Obama "liberal," neither faced pressure to outflank the other on the left. (Recall on health care Obama successfully positioned himself to Clinton's right.) But the GOP field has devoted significant time trying to "out-conservative" one another, whether on contraception, immigration, climate change (it's a "phony mess" ), or even the very word "conservative." Their movement to the right could prove problematic this fall as they try to woo general election voters.
Pundits like to put things in perspective by making comparisons to the recent past. In the sports world right now, the comparison is Jeremy Lin to Tim Tebow -- both are former benchwarmers who led their teams on improbable win-streaks, right? Yes, but if you dig deeper the similarities end there.
The same is true of comparisons between the 2008 and 2012 primary battles. Yes, both saw months of bitter inter-party fighting before a nominee emerged. But differences between the two elections abound, many of which could spell trouble for Republicans in the fall.
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