Eight or nine months ago I would have told you that contentious primaries were a bad thing. In mid-March we did a set of general election match up polls in Florida and Ohio. Hillary Clinton was getting only 47% of the black vote in Ohio and just 51% in Florida. Obama was doing poorly with white Democrats, leading him overall to be earning only 59% of the Democratic vote in Ohio and 53% in Florida. There was most definitely a PUMA effect at that early point in the race, and I was eager for the nomination fight to be wrapped up as quick as possible because I thought we were killing our chances in the fall.
Well I was wrong. No way does Barack Obama win his improbable victories in North Carolina and Indiana during the general election if he doesn't compete there and start building up an infrastructure in the primary. He may not have won Pennsylvania in quite the blowout he did, and the state was one of Obama's key firewalls. In this case at least, the extended primary was crucial to the extent of the electoral college victory.
Now it was not necessarily inevitable that this party unification occurred. Obama and Clinton both did exactly what they needed to do to bring her supporters on board. We wrote a report in mid-October about the declining PUMA's and looked at some of the other factors that helped to get folks on the same page.
I think the competitive primary in North Carolina's Senate race ended up being a good thing for Kay Hagan's ultimate prospects as well. It forced her to go on the air during the primary, which built up her name recognition. The polls tightened up enough that the Elizabeth Dole campaign felt the need to blow a bunch of money going on the air in June and getting their numbers back to where they wanted. It worked, but then they seemed hesitant to strike back immediately when they started getting whacked by the DSCC in August and the rest is history. Hagan having to compete with Jim Neal helped set that process in motion.
Brutal primaries certainly can be very damaging to a nominee's ultimate prospects. But as we saw this year, if folks get on the same page quickly enough it can be a good thing too.