It feels like just yesterday that long nomination fights seemed cool. Not anymore, apparently. So how come the 2012 primaries didn't propel Mitt Romney to the presidency - and is there anything a national party really can do these days to control the process?
Those questions are on full view this week as the Republican National Committee unveiled ideas for strengthening their nomination process that include moving up their convention, holding fewer debates, and a shorter primary season, as reported in the party's review of the 2012 election and described by RNC chairman Reince Priebus on "Face the Nation."
Just before the 2012 cycle, you'll recall, Republicans were charting a very different path: they'd taken steps to make the primary season last longer, having scrapped their traditional winner-take-all system - win a state; get all the delegates; clinch a nomination fast - in favor of a proportional one that doled out delegates piecemeal, in an effort to keep the contest winding on through more states.
As we wrote at the time, that looked like a savvy way to replicate the Democrats' wildly successful 2008 contest, in which then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought through the spring but left behind Democratic registration boosts, organization and enthusiasm everywhere they went, even in red states, which in turn helped deliver wins in November. Moreover, by the time the 2008 conventions rolled around, it seemed so much had been said and vetted about Obama that the fall held few surprises. It all looked like evidence, in spite of conventional wisdom, that a long nomination fight could be good for a party.
2012 obviously did not turn out that way for the GOP. The allocation system did indeed slow Romney's march to the nomination: after winning the Florida primary that was thought to be his firewall, Romney and Rick Santorum battled through Ohio and Wisconsin and Michigan - all of which were fall battlegrounds, too - but none of them ultimately went for the GOP in November, nor did other early states like New Hampshire, Iowa, or Nevada. Nor, in many places, did Romney even get a substantially different number of votes than John McCain had. But whether the primaries really hurt Romney that much - or just left opportunities on the table - remains an open debate.
Part of the GOP's concern today, and desire to move up the formal nomination, is that Romney was hampered by spending laws and was "defined" during that stretch by outside groups and the Obama campaign, in much the same way other challengers to incumbents (Bob Dole in 1996, John Kerry in 2004) have also found the spring and summer, pre-convention period inhospitable.
Nationally, at least, the evidence for this in 2012 isn't that clear.
Romney had underwater favorable ratings in the CBS News Poll near the start of primary season in January 2012, 21 percent favorable to 35 percent unfavorable. From there his favorable numbers actually improved a bit overall, while his negatives didn't get much worse. It is, however, impossible to know what might have been, without that primary dynamic, or how high Romney's favorable rating might have gone otherwise.
And those ratings never did get above water - in the November exit poll he was still seen personally unfavorably by a narrow margin, even after the fall campaign. (There was an interesting discussion on the role of campaign ads, and that counterfactual, at Monkeycage
But the primary process can also reveal issues and battle test candidates in ways that can be used - or used against them - in the fall. And what really matters is whether or not the debates within the party find alignment with the wider electorate.