With the presidential nominating season now threatening to spill forward into early January—or Boxing Day—or Halloween—a lamentation is ringing through the land (or at least among the politically obsessed). It goes something like this: “Why can’t a wide variety of states, small and large, have a genuine say in the nomination? Why can’t the voters have the time they need to get a real sense of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses?”
Why not? For the answer, look to 1984—not Orwell’s dystopian novel, but the Democratic nominating calendar of little more than 20 years ago. That year, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart battled for the chance to take on incumbent Ronald Reagan. And what now seems an impossibility—lots of states with real clout, lots of time for voters—was pretty much what happened. And while the process ended with the traditional gnashing of teeth and rending of garments that greets the end of every primary season, it seems a model compared to the truncated six-week campaigns of recent years and the real possibility of an even shorter season this time around.
In the beginning, it didn’t look like a real fight at all. Former Vice President Mondale had a huge lead in all the early polls, and the opposition was scattered among Sens. John Glenn, Alan Cranston, Gary Hart, and Ernest Hollings, as well as Florida Gov. Reuben Askew and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. With backing from organized labor and most of the party’s establishment, Mondale ran a Rose Garden strategy without a Rose Garden. “The sweetest primary in history,” he called it, and when he won a landslide in the Iowa caucuses of Feb. 20, with 48 percent of the vote compared with 16 percent for runner-up Hart, it looked like the contest would be over almost before it began. Indeed, on the day of the New Hampshire primary a week later, the New York Times reported that “Walter F. Mondale now holds the most commanding lead ever recorded in a presidential nominating campaign by a non-incumbent.”
It proved, however, to be a lead anchored in sand. By coming in second in Iowa, however distantly, Gary Hart became the unofficial candidate of the “not-Mondale” Democrats—voters who were younger, more educated, more affluent, whiter, and disenchanted with the orthodoxies of the Democratic Party. They had backed Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. And in New Hampshire, with the help of Mondale’s complacency and Hart’s message promising “new ideas” and “a new generation of leadership,” these Democrats gave the underfinanced underdog Hart a near 10-point win. When Hart followed up with a landslide victory in Vermont a week later, Mondale found himself on the verge of political death.
And then the nominating process saved him. The progression of primaries from March to June gave voters time to take a longer look at the players. Even as Hart’s face splashed onto the covers of news magazines, unsettling questions began to pop up. Why had he changed his name from Hartpence? Why had he dissembled about his age? Why had his signature radically changed? Then came a memorable moment during a debate in Atlanta, shortly before the March 13 primaries in several Southern states. Turning to Hart, Mondale borrowed a line from the famous Wendy’s TV ad of the day: “When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad: ‘Where’s the beef?’ ” (Mondale had actually never seen the ad; his campaign manager, Bob Beckel, had to act it out for him).
Mondale also had time to rally groups in the traditional Democratic coalition, which was suspicious of Hart’s post-New Deal “new ideas” rhetoric. In two Southern states, it is not too much to say that Mondale’s campaign was saved by the black vote. Mondale was a civil rights stalwart; Hart had entered politics after that movement’s great victories and had once said of himself and his ideological contemporaries, “We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys.” To blacks (and to unions), that was not a recommendation. On March 13, already three weeks into the long primary season, Mondale lost the Florida, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island primaries. But with the support of civil rights leaders Julian Bond and Coretta Scott King in Georgia, and Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington in Alabama—who broke with other blacks and shunned the Jackson campaign—Mondale won those two states and survived to fight another day.
From mid-March to June, the contest went on, without a clear victor. On March 20, the remnants of Richard Daley’s Chicago organization managed a five-point victory for Mondale over Hart. A week later, New York weighed in with a 17-point win for Mondale. But while Mondale re-emerged the front-runner, the contest was far from over. During the next two months, Wisconsin went narrowly for Hart; Pennsylvania went big for Mondale; Indiana went for Hart; Maryland and North Carolina chose Mondale; and Ohio gave Hart a two-point victory.
On June 5, six states voted. Hart seemed poised to stage yet anther comeback, with poll leads in California and New Jersey. Then, in an act of self-destruction trumped only by his sleepover with Donna Rice three years later, Hart apparently forgot all about the sensibilities of New Jersey voters. He said of his wife, Lee, at a fund-raiser in California in Los Angeles, “The good news for her is that she campaigns in California, while I campaign in New Jersey. ” When Mrs. Hart interjected, “I got to hold a koala bear,” Hart said, “I won’t tell you what I got to hold: samples from a toxic waste site.” On primary day, Hart went on to scratch out a win in California, but the aggrieved citizens of New Jersey gave Mondale a 15-point win. And finally, the race was effectively over. All told, Mondale won 6.8 million votes to Hart’s 6.5 million (Jesse Jackson placed third with 3.3 million votes).
In sum, in 1984, we got what we say we want today. Iowa and New Hampshire gave a long shot a chance to be seen and heard. The South then played an early pivotal role. The big industrial states got their chance to be highly consequential. And voters around the country had months to learn more and more about the candidates.
And yet the punditocracy loudly condemned the system. “If 1984 teaches no other lesson,” wrote the Washington Post’s Haynes Johnson, “it ought to be that the primary process must be shortened further.” An unsigned item in the Post complained that “the Democratic process seems to have gone on as long as the Korean War on ‘M*A*S*H*.’ ” Political scientist Austin Ranney concluded that “so many primaries so strung out are not great for the Democratic Party. Before 1968, the party leaders would have enough time to arrive at a consensus fairly early, which gave the party time to salve its wounds and get into contention to beat the Republicans in November.”
Four years later, in 1988, there was no extended contest. George Bush and Michael Dukakis won early and big. These lopsided outcomes convinced the larger states that they were being shut out. By 1992, California had joined New York in moving its primary to March, and the rush to the front of the calendar was on. For Democrats especially, the results of the last two nominations, in which Al Gore and John Kerry won without ceding a single significant primary to their rivals, underscored the idea that states had to move to the front of the line to be relevant.
To me, a return to the 1984 calendar makes a lot more sense than some of the alternatives. The free-for-all dash to the head of the line is already proving to be a recipe for chaos. A national primary would give far too much advantage to the better-known, better-financed candidates. And the complaint that a lengthy process leaves the victor too battered to compete in the general election simply ignores history. FDR and Eisenhower had to endure pitched battles at the convention and somehow managed landslides. Gerald Ford, who almost lost his renomination to Ronald Reagan in 1976, staged a near-successful comeback against consensus nominee Jimmy Carter. It’s not apparent what political advantage Gore and Kerry gained from their glides to the nomination.
By contrast, the 1984 calendar seems to address most of the complaints we’re now hearing. It does, however, need one adjustment. Yes, small states should be at the head of the line. But at some point, the good people of Iowa and New Hampshire have to be told—kindly but firmly—that neither the Bible nor the Constitution requires that they always be the ones to go first.