In the days and hours leading up to last nights election, there was a lot of spin and smack talk coming from the two front-running candidates, Romney and Rick Santorum. Romney's camp was accusing Santorum of trying to get Democrats to vote for him to pad his numbers against Romney - as if encouraging people from the opposing party to support you is somehow a bad thing - and Santorum's people were accusing Romney of more negative campaigning and dirty tricks. As far as Santorum earning Democratic votes goes, it's generally understood that many Democrats who voted for Santorum did so just to screw with Romney and to help accomplish two goals. The first is the loftier aim of actually helping Santorum win the party nomination so that he could be trounced by Obama over his rigid and unpopular socially conservative extremism and the second is to keep Santorum close enough to Romney to stay in the race, prolong the process, keep the party divided and do most of Obama's early work for him in the hopes that the end result would more closely mirror the Carter/Kennedy primary battle that resulted in Reagan winning the election, rather than the Obama/Clinton fight in 2008, in which Obama won.
There is logic to this. The rhetoric between Romney and his challengers is far more heated and nasty than it was between Obama and Hilary Clinton. That's not to say that there weren't barbs thrown in that race, but the fight was mostly between the two front runners. In the current Republican primary, the barbs are flying from everyone in the fight and they're all being thrown at Romney, except from Ron Paul who has comfortably settled into the role of being Romney's lackey, as if there's a snowball's chance in hell he will get a VP nod if Romney wins. In return, Romney is throwing heat back at the remaining field still chasing him so that instead of projecting the appearance of a contentious, yet understandable rivalry between the candidates, it seems more like an arrogant, self-assured heir apparent vs. a bunch of red meat throwing rebel-rousers.
There's another important difference between the Obama vs. Clinton primary fight of 2008 and the Romney vs. Everybody fight going on now, and that is public opinion and party voter support. In the 2008 primary, Obama and Clinton both had loyal and enthusiastic bases of support. Democrats either loved Hilary or they loved Obama, but they all had a strong affinity for their chosen candidate. In the current GOP primary, nobody really likes any of the candidates running and the success of each of the "not Romney" candidates has had little to do with their mass appeal and more to do with their perceived ability to beat Romney. That's a huge factor that can not be understated.
Simply put, the Republican base just doesn't like Mitt Romney. Sure, they'll vote for him if he wins the nomination, because, well, he's not Obama, but they don't really want him to win the nomination. They'd much rather vote for a new crush like Chris Christie or more of the same like Jeb Bush, but those guys aren't in the race, so they'll settle for a Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich just because they're not Mitt Romney. This is a major distinction between the 2012 primary and the 2008 one. Clinton and Obama had fans, they had supporters who loved them and wanted to see them win. The fight was fierce, but it was passionate and it was driven by a real desire among the Democratic base to elect the strongest possible candidate who could take on the Republican nominee and win. In contrast, the Republican primary voters are apathetic. They aren't voting because they really want to see Santorum win as much as because they want to see Romney lose. The attitude and energy that is motivating Republican voters to the polls is tepid and instead of passion and enthusiasm, it's coming across as bitter resignation.
This is important because, while the hardcore Republican base might be perfectly fine with voting for whoever their party nominates just because they are the Republican nominee, moderates and independent voters aren't so quick to fall in line. Moderates and independents are how Obama won in 2008 and, so far, the GOP has done nothing to sway those important swing voters to their side. In fact, with the hyper-conservative rhetoric being thrown around by Romney, Santorum and Gingrich at stump speeches, in interviews and at the debates, the candidates have alienated a lot of essential voting groups, namely women and minorities. I'm not sure how a guy like Santorum expects to win back the women voters after attacking women's health issues on the trail, nor do I see how any of the GOP candidates can possibly hope to win the Latino vote with all of their border fence talk.
The only GOP candidate right now who has a support base that's actually passionate about their candidate, rather than just less disgusted with him than the other guys is Ron Paul, but even he might be doing himself more harm than good by assuming the role of Romney's attack dog against Santorum. Ron Paul supporters don't like Mitt Romney, they see him as a phony and a prime example of what's wrong with the modern Republican party, so Ron Paul getting on board the Romney train and being buddy-buddy with him isn't going to win him any new fans. Of course, Ron Paul's supporters are also rabid and fiercely loyal, so I doubt he will lose many supporters over this either. Really, it's a smart tactical move on Paul's part - keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Clearly Paul sees Romney as the inevitable nominee and is trying to avoid the shrapnel as much as possible while his team works on their planned delegate coups at the convention.
But, all of this is why I think that the prolonged battle amongst the GOP candidates only hurts them and helps Obama. The more these guys fight dirty and backstab each other, the more they do damage that can't be easily reversed once the fight goes to the general election. The more these guys alienate swing voters by trying to out-conservative each other, the harder it will be to gain majority support when it really matters. At the same time, though, I am wary of Democratic over confidence that this will be a walk-away victory for Obama. Nothing is in the bag about this election at all yet. Obama still has a lot of looming spectres dogging his reelection, unemployment is still high, gas prices are on pace to break record highs and even though the markets have rebounded and the economy is growing, the quality of life for most Americans is still well below what it was 8 years ago and where it rightfully should be today. These issues cross party lines and can still turn undecided voters off on the idea of giving Obama four more years. His battle will be to convince those swing voters that he's still the best-qualified guy in the race to fix those problems over the next four years. As for the GOP candidates, their toughest battle will be to try and heal the deep, bleeding wounds they've been inflicting on themselves over the last few months as well as the ones they will surely inflict in the months leading up to the convention. Given the intent of both Santorum and Paul to take their respective fights for the nomination all the way to the convention, those wounds will be festering and likely to leave ugly scars.