The primary season opens with so many Republican candidates for the party's nomination for president that it seemingly takes forever just to ask each of them a single question in the televised debates. Three different Republican candidates win the first three states' races, in a wide-open contest with no incumbent on the ballot. The first results thin the large field of hopefuls, as minor candidates run out of funding and throw in the towel. As more states vote, the two top candidates get to a point in early February where they are neck-and-neck in the number of individual states won -- with the third candidate lagging, because his support is based mostly in the South. Ron Paul is also running, but not winning any states. Dark mutterings are heard about the presumed-frontrunner not being able to "close the deal," and about his overall weak support among conservatives in the party. The media is in a frenzy, all but drooling over the prospect of an open convention, where no Republican candidate has the magic number of delegates to secure the nomination.
While this all sounds very contemporary, what I'm describing is the 2008 primary season. This may come as a surprise, because few in the media have picked up on these similarities.
Four years and a few days ago -- February eighth, to be exact -- John McCain had won twelve states, Mitt Romney had won eleven, and Mike Huckabee had won seven. Huckabee took the first contest in Iowa, McCain picked up New Hampshire, and Romney won early votes in Wyoming and Michigan (his birth state). Unlike this year, Super Tuesday was very early -- pushed all the way to the beginning of February -- which is why so many states had voted by this point. McCain, right after Super Tuesday, had the following states in his column (in rough order of when they voted): NH, SC, FL, AZ, CA, CT, DE, IL, MO, NJ, NY, OK. Mitt Romney had at this point won: WY, MI, NV, ME, AK, CO, MA, MN, MT, ND, UT. Mike Huckabee had picked up: IA, AL, AR, GA, TN, WV, KS. Huckabee went on to win a few more states, but John McCain swept all the remaining contests to put him over the halfway point of total convention delegates (the "magic number") by early March.
But the point is, the race had gone on much longer in 2008 than it has in 2012, when measured by the number of states which had voted. Four years ago, thirty states had voted by the first week in February. This year, only nine have so far held their Republican contests. This is due to the Republican Party moving the date of Super Tuesday back one month, to the first week in March.
Even accounting for such differences, the 2008 race was still a very close three-way contest in early February. Romney and McCain were almost even in states won, with Huckabee not all that far behind. This year, Mitt Romney has won four states, Rick Santorum four, and Newt Gingrich one.
You'd think the media would remember these facts, but (once again) we are being subjected to endless stories about how downright unique the 2012 Republican primary season is, along with the exact same storylines that ran in 2008 about the frontrunner not being able to close the deal, especially with conservative voters. McCain, back then, raised just as many suspicions among the conservative Republican base that he "wasn't one of us" that Romney now hears.
Of course, there are differences. The favorite candidate of the social conservatives in the party is running in second place this time, instead of Huckabee's third place. Ron Paul is doing a lot better than he did in 2008, but has still yet to win a single state. The glitzy candidates back in 2008 had already dropped out (Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson), whereas this year Newt Gingrich is still hanging in there.
Super Tuesday may not crown a winner this year, but we could see another candidate drop out immediately afterwards (Newt, I'm looking in your direction...). Mitt Romney threw in the towel last time around, which left the relatively weak Huckabee still going up against McCain. This time around, if Romney and Santorum split most of the Super Tuesday states, it may be a much more even contest.
History never repeats itself, at least not exactly. But the similarities between the 2008 Republican primary race and the 2012 primary season are arguably more numerous than the differences.
Someone should alert the media.
To be fair, political reporters and pundits and other assorted wonks on the internet dearly love a good fight. Conflict equals viewers and readers. "Coronations" where one candidate just romps home without any real opposition equals a race so boring that everybody stops paying attention. There's a certain degree of self-interest involved, to put it another way. On top of this is the fact that news which is deemed "fresh" and "unique" and "never-before-seen" is obviously a bigger pull than "here we go again."
Perhaps, during the current lull in primaries building up to Super Tuesday, political reporters will get so starved for stories that a few of them might snap out of their self-induced amnesia and realize that the 2008 Republican primary race was also a rollercoaster ride. John McCain had to fight hard for the nomination, and suffered serious setbacks along the way. I realize it's easier to write another "This year is so unlike any other year in American history!" story, but maybe the two-week pause will inspire at least a few in the punditocracy to question whether that is really all that true or not. Stranger things have happened, one might say.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant