Mitt Romney greeting supporters at a campaign stop in Mobile, Alabama, on March 12.
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Mitt Romney greeting supporters at a campaign stop in Mobile, Alabama, on March 12.

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Mary Matalin: With each contest, Americans become more engaged with the GOP

In 2008, Barack Obama won the general election after a long primary battle

Gallup says that Republicans are more enthusiastic about voting in this election

Matalin: A competitive primary can strengthen a party and lead to victories

Editor’s Note: Mary Matalin is a Republican strategist and political contributor at CNN. She has worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. She formerly held the White House positions of assistant to President George W. Bush and counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

CNN —  

The primary process is good for the Republican Party—and our country.

With each contest, more Americans have the chance to cast a vote against President Obama. More voters become engaged with the Republican Party. And the media can continue to focus on the Republican candidates and their solutions to the problems created by President Obama, rather than the empty promises of the Obama re-election campaign. In short, the primaries add momentum and enthusiasm for the GOP as we draw closer to the general election.

Some may argue otherwise, but remember 2008? Sen. John McCain quickly wrapped up the Republican nomination by early March. But the Democrats continued fighting it out well into June, which had the effect of engaging Democrats and first time voters. The country’s attention was on the Democrats, and that propelled them to victory in November. Not only did Barack Obama win the White House, but Democrats rode his coattails to larger majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

At that time, many thought that a long primary would be a drag. A New York Times headline declared it “a present for McCain.” Sen. Christopher Dodd said it was “undermining (Democrats’) ability to win an election.” The Boston Globe reported, “McCain media adviser says Democrats hurting themselves.”

Mary Matalin
Mary Matalin

But the lesson from 2008 turned out to be this: a competitive primary can strengthen a party.

The same was true in 1980 – the last time Republicans defeated a sitting president. Ronald Reagan did not win the nomination until May 20, but in November he won 489 electoral votes to President Carter’s 49. In 2004, by comparison, Democrats were challenging an incumbent president, and Sen. John Kerry was effectively the nominee by March 2. President George W. Bush went on to defeat him in the general election by a margin larger than his 2000 victory.

Every primary process is unique. There are different candidates, different issues and different circumstances. But if history is any guide, then it appears that while competitive primaries can be good, quick primaries are not always as advantageous as they seem.

In 2010, analysts thought that the spirited and competitive primaries in important swing states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida would undermine the Republicans’ general election prospects. Today, there are Republican governors in each of those states, leading the way with far reaching reforms and economic progress for their citizens. The rigors of those primaries made them stronger competitors in the general election of 2010 and better public servants.

Likewise, Republicans have undoubtedly benefited from the primary over the last two months. According to Gallup, Republican and Republican-leaning voters are more enthusiastic about voting in this election. That’s critical. Enthusiasm translates into voter turnout. The Republican enthusiasm, it seems, results from a higher level of engagement in the primary process. According to Gallup, “more Republicans than Democrats—70% vs. 58%—say they have given quite a lot of thought to the election.”

There is, of course, one other factor galvanizing support for Republicans: President Obama. As his policies continue to disappoint Americans, they are turning increasingly to Republicans.

America cannot afford four more years of high unemployment, large deficits, rising gas prices, increased poverty and bloated government. President Obama has put us on an unsustainable trajectory, with no plan to change course.

Republicans, though, stand ready to lead. One of our four candidates will emerge from the primary ready to take on President Obama directly and contrast Republicans’ vision for a more prosperous future with the failed policies of the past three years.

Until then, our party will continue to build momentum, generate enthusiasm and offer Americans a new direction that we so desperately need.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Matalin.