Will a long, competitive race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich give Republicans a boost? Don't bet on it.
A hard-fought race for a party's nomination often does the party a lot of good. That was certainly the case for the Democrats in 2008. The spirited race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wasn't decided until June. Both contenders ended up enhancing their reputations. Clinton scored points for being a resilient fighter. She never gave up. Obama looked like a conquering hero after beating the Clinton machine.
The 2012 Republican race may not be resolved quickly. Far from rallying around a frontrunner, Republican voters seem more and more uncertain. The latest Gallup tracking poll shows the GOP race tightening up. At the beginning of December, Gingrich led Romney by 15 points. Now his lead has been cut to four points (28 to 24 percent). Meanwhile, the number of undecided Republicans has been going up, not down. That's not supposed to happen as the voting gets started.
The race could go back and forth, week after week, with neither candidate building a solid lead. One reason is that states that hold primaries before April 1 are supposed to divide their convention delegates proportionally between the candidates, in line with the primary vote. Winner-take-all primaries are banned (although Florida Republicans are threatening to defy the ban).
Primaries are supposed to be a killing field. The idea is to pick a winner quickly and get dead candidates off the field. Proportional representation keeps dying candidates alive, week after week, as they continue to collect delegates. It draws out the process.
The battle between Romney and Gingrich is likely to be more negative than the 2008 Democratic race. In 2008, most Democrats liked both Obama and Clinton and could have supported either one. In the 2012 Republican race, Tea Party conservatives harbor a deep distrust of Romney, while establishment Republicans are horrified by the prospect of Gingrich as the Republican standard-bearer. The competition is already getting bitter. It's likely to get worse.
Of course, a solid frontrunner might emerge quickly. Either Gingrich or Romney could sweep the early contests (Iowa Jan. 3, New Hampshire January 10, South Carolina January 21, Florida January 31). February brings a month-long pause with only two primaries scheduled at the end of the month (Arizona and Michigan on February 28). Plenty of time for a backlash to develop.
If Gingrich is the clear frontrunner, the GOP establishment will panic. The Bushes and Bakers and Roves and Sununus will try to rally primary voters with the cry, "Gingrich can't beat Obama!" But with the Republican Party in the grip of an insurrection, it's unclear how much influence the establishment still has. If Romney is the clear frontrunner, Tea Party activists will panic. "Romney is not a real conservative!" they will cry. "He's not one of us!" In either case, we may see a deep fissure in the party and possibly an open revolt.
A lot of Republicans are asking whether there is still time for a late entrant to get into the race and save the party. The answer is no, for two reasons. (1) There is no General Eisenhower out there whose stature puts him above the fray. (2) Party bosses don't control conventions any more. Primary voters do. The days are long gone when a Robert F. Kennedy could enter the presidential race on March 16, 1968, four days after the New Hampshire primary, and raise an army of delegates.
In short, once a bandwagon for either Gingrich or Romney gets started, it's more likely to slow down than to speed up. That happened to Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984. They started losing in the late primaries as voters had "second thoughts." None of them was denied their party's nomination, but they emerged from the nominating contests scarred and weakened.
Democrats renominated Jimmy Carter in 1980, but he had the taint of illegitimacy. Liberals were not convinced he was one of them. That could happen to Romney with conservatives. Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination in 1964, but he had the taint of extremism. The party establishment bolted. That could happen to Gingrich, especially if he keeps talking about declaring war on federal judges. Even Franklin Roosevelt couldn't win that battle in 1938, when he tried to pack the Supreme Court.
To paraphrase a famous movie line: Fasten your seat belts, folks. It's going to be a bumpy ride.