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Why A Fight To The Finish May Not Be A Bad Thing

 Lynn Coffin holds boxing hand puppets of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (left) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a campaign event this week in Sarasota, Fla.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Lynn Coffin holds boxing hand puppets of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (left) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a campaign event this week in Sarasota, Fla.

In election season, conventional wisdom holds that a costly, drawn-out primary fight hurts a nominee in the general election.

It's a notion that appeals to common sense. After all, the thinking goes, if a boxer endures nine rounds with a formidable challenger and immediately steps back into the ring with a well-rested heavyweight, that can't be good.

"It makes for a good story — the candidates are up, now they're down. It's a bloody battle," says Amber Wichowsky, a political science professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "But if you look at the evidence, there's very little to indicate that a divisive primary harms a candidate in the general election."


Instead, the old adage about what doesn't kill you makes you stronger seems to ring more true, Wichowsky says.

And what about some of the superPAC punches Mitt Romney has absorbed in recent days over his time at Bain Capital and his tax returns?

If Romney emerges as the Republican presidential nominee, "it's actually possible that airing [the problems] earlier on allows his campaign to learn how to respond to difficult accusations," she says. Same goes for Newt Gingrich or the other GOP hopefuls.

Stanford University political science professor Shanto Iyengar agrees.

"A tough party primary strengthens a candidate for the general election, which is often a run against an incumbent," he says.


Obama Vs. Clinton

Wichowsky points to the 2008 presidential campaign and the hand-wringing by some top Democrats, including then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that a protracted fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would do damage come November. Clearly, it didn't.

It's the same point that Republican campaign veteran and former White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove made in a December interview with ABC News.

"I remember in 2008 saying to myself this long, drawn-out contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is going to leave the Democrats bled white and hurting," Rove said.

"It turned out to actually have helped them enormously," he noted. "Registration totals went way up in battleground states, they built large armies of volunteers, they crystallized the message, people took the candidates and concluded they were up to the job, and they came barreling out of that contest."

Rove added that he thought the same thing would hold true for Republicans this year.

Waiting To Strike

To be sure, not everyone agrees that the "divisive primary hypothesis" is ready to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

The longer the nomination race goes on — and this year's GOP primaries have been stretched out more than they were in 2008 — the more campaign money is frittered away on internecine squabbling, and the more time the other side has to gather ammunition, says Richard Lau, a political science professor at Rutgers in New Jersey.

During the campaign this fall, Democrats won't have to say, " 'This is what's wrong with the Republican candidate.' They can say, 'This is what other Republicans think is wrong with the Republican candidate,' " Lau says.

"The second point is that [the Republicans] have got to keep spending money," he says. "Meanwhile, Obama is sitting on the sidelines raising money but not spending much."

Those sentiments are shared by William S. Bike, author of the book Winning Political Campaigns.

"It's absolutely the case that all this stuff that is being said about Romney now is going to be fodder for the Democrats if Romney is the GOP nominee," Bike says. "Not only is the Obama campaign going to pick up on this, they are going to be able to use the [television] clips."

Incumbents who endure a bruising primary also tend to fare poorly in the general election. But since only weak incumbents are likely to face challenges from within their own party, it's difficult to know whether it's the quality of the candidate or the ferocity of that challenge, Wichowsky says.

Think 1976. President Ford, tainted by his association with the disgraced Nixon White House, fought off an aggressive GOP rival named Ronald Reagan but then lost to Jimmy Carter in November. Four years later, an unpopular President Carter was forced to wrestle Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy for his party's nomination. Carter prevailed but got pulverized in the general election by Reagan.

"It's not so much that it's the nastiness of the primary that harms the candidate in the general election, but it's that the incumbent was actually vulnerable to begin with," Wichowsky says.

Tuned In Or Turned Off

And for potential voters, will the negativity that generally accompanies a long nomination fight turn them into nonvoters this fall?

"To be honest, I don't like it," says J.J. Hemingway, 52, a voice-over artist from Spokane, Wash. The self-described right-leaning independent says he voted for Obama four years ago but is edging toward Romney this time around.

"Before, when they had six different candidates or more, it was competitive but it wasn't nasty," he says of this year's GOP primary. "Now it's starting to get into the mudslinging, and ... I don't think that's attractive to anybody."

But Hemingway is adamant that he would never sit out an election: "No matter what."

"If it really gets nasty? It depends how nasty it gets," he chuckles. "If it stinks, I guess I could end up voting Democratic. Right now, though, I am leaning toward Mitt Romney and I expect him to be the nominee."

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