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GOP Shouldn’t Fear Competitive Primary

I mentioned in my earlier post the fact that Hillary Clinton’s supposed inevitability in 2008 never materialized, and that few remember how central Clinton’s strength as a candidate was to her potential rival GOP campaigns. Few also seem to remember just how acrimonious was the drawn-out primary battle that eventually produced Barack Obama’s nomination. There were worries all along on the left that the vicious contest would split the Democratic Party and weaken the eventual nominee.

Neither happened, and Clinton eventually went on to serve as Obama’s secretary of state before getting Obama’s obvious support for her 2016 run. The party managed to avoid civil war as well as the attempts to nominate Al Gore–yes, Al Gore–on the second ballot at the Democratic National Convention that year. Despite that seemingly cheerful epilogue, some Republicans apparently worry that a drawn-out primary process could hamper the party’s hopes of taking back the White House in 2016–though this concern is slightly different than the Democrats’ 2008 version in that Republicans are unnerved by the sheer number of potential GOP candidates. They fear not a split, but a shattering, according to the Hill:

More than two dozen Republicans are eyeing the GOP presidential nomination, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks like she could coast to the crown.

Only a handful of Democrats are even circling Clinton, while the potential GOP field just continues to grow.

“To beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, you need a strong candidate,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said of his party’s 2016 contenders. “A crowded field has the potential to give Hillary a bigger leg up than she currently has.”

The contrast poses opportunities and threats for the GOP.

A winning candidate could emerge from a crowded primary stronger and battle tested, much as President Obama was strengthened from a 2008 primary fight with Clinton.

But a crowded primary could also weaken a GOP nominee by extending the fight and exhausting the eventual winner physically and financially.

Or, it could muddle things enough to allow a weaker nominee to emerge.

I’m not quite sure either of the assumptions underlying this concern holds up under scrutiny. Was Obama really “strengthened” by his battle with Clinton? On the other hand, he surely wasn’t weakened enough to lose or low enough on resources not to set records for campaign fundraising. That, I think, gets to the point of why these stories are logical but overheated: nominate a strong candidate, he will not be held back by the primary. Nominate a weak candidate, and it won’t matter.

Obama was a strong general-election candidate, and John McCain was not. Thus, the fact that Obama had a bitter struggle to gain the nomination while McCain effectively had his wrapped up by Super Tuesday had no real effect on the general election. It was Obama, not McCain, who was flush with cash. And it was McCain, not Obama, who had trouble uniting his party behind his candidacy.

As for the perception of the party among the general voting public, the number of candidates matters less than the quality of those candidates. The Hill goes on to name the prospective GOP candidates, and includes people like Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Steve King. But the list of potential first-tier candidates who are more likely to actually run and to garner enough votes to participate in the televised debates goes something like this: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, perhaps Paul Ryan and John Kasich.

There are others, but those names are the reason many conservatives have been optimistic about the future of the movement and the GOP. A popular perspective from the right is that a lineup like that is a good problem to have, and that you really can’t have too many good candidates at a time like this. Whether they actually turn out to be good candidates remains to be seen, of course. But if each of them didn’t have constituent appeal there would be no concern about splitting the vote.

The party will have its debate and choose its standard bearer, and that debate looks to be wide-ranging, diverse, and almost certainly contentious. But it’s doubtful conservatives would rather have a coronation.


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