It's been a long time since there really hasn't been an obvious front-runner [among Republicans]," says Lewis Gould, a historian who wrote Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans. "It's hard to see somebody becoming a juggernaut in the next eight or 12 months, so that by summer of 2014 people are saying, 'It's X's to lose.' We're a long way from that."
The result is likely to be a long nominating season. In contrast to the usual fashion, in which there's a king and a group of individuals aspiring to dethrone the king, a wide-open field means more candidates can linger in hopes of getting hot later in the game.
"When you get past New Hampshire, the field is usually down to two or three candidates," Rath says. "I'm not sure that will happen this time."
The “long slog,” as the Romney campaign staff called it, did benefit the GOP in a couple of ways. First, it bolstered the nominee’s legitimacy in the eyes of the party base. In 2008, many conservatives thought that the front-loaded calendar enabled John McCain to seize the nomination before the rank and file could appraise him fully. In 2012, the party got a chance to give Romney a long, hard look and weigh the alternatives. Second, it honed Romney’s campaign skills. He had always known the issues, but twenty debates gave him plenty of practice at making points forcefully and putting opponents on the defensive. This experience paid off in his first general-election debate with President Obama.
But if the nomination race was an education for Mitt Romney, the tuition was expensive. It cost his campaign about $87 million and kept him from focusing on the general election until well into the spring of 2012. In the meantime, the Obama campaign had been methodically building its general-election machinery, and by April, it had dozens of field offices in key states. Still, it worried about anti-Obama attacks from Romney and GOP super PACs. “Our air defenses weren’t ready,” said Obama strategist David Axelrod. “They gave us a pass, for whatever reason.” The reason, of course, was that Romney did not have the nomination in hand and had to concentrate on beating his GOP rivals.
Some commentators have claimed that the GOP nomination process hurt Romney by pulling him too far to the right. But Romney’s conservative journey took place mostly before 2008, which is why he won the endorsement of National Review in that nomination campaign. His basic positions for 2012 were in place by the start of the race, and changed little through the end of the primary season. But the “long slog” did create many opportunities for verbal missteps, and Romney made his share, from “severely conservative” to “self-deportation.” Romney had won running a campaign with few substantive positive themes, relying on superior resources to batter at his opponents’ weaknesses with largely unanswered negative barrages—an approach with obvious limitations in the upcoming general election fight against a well-funded incumbent. In the end, Republicans settled for Romney, gambling that everything should ride on an economic referendum.