Despite Hillary Clinton’s victories in Ohio and Texas yesterday, she still trails Barack Obama in delegates. The Obama camp, claiming she won’t be able to close the gap, is spinning the case for her to withdraw. Though self-serving, their argument is framed as a concern for the Democratic Party. At this late date, the reasoning goes, the Democrats need to stop squabbling and unite behind a nominee who can take on the Republican nominee, John McCain. Shouldn’t Hillary graciously concede and end this endless primary season?
Like the calls for Al Gore to concede the presidency to George Bush in November 2000, this anxiety about the imagined consequences of a protracted fight misreads both history and the calendar. In 2000, pundits seemed not to know that contested elections in previous years—notably the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon—remained officially unresolved until barely a month before Inauguration Day, and so they talked as if each hour of uncertainty brought the republic nearer to doom.
The calls to wrap up the Democratic primary race show a similar amnesia. To suggest that March 5 marks a late date in the calendar ignores the duration of primary seasons past. Indeed, were Hillary Clinton to have pulled out of the race this week, Obama would have actually clinched a contested race for the party’s nomination earlier than almost any other Democrat since the current primary system took shape—the sole exception being John Kerry four years ago. Fighting all the way through the primaries, in other words, is perfectly normal.
The year 1972 is when the current primary system came into being, and to review the races ever since is to behold a panorama of Democratic infighting that makes the Clinton-Obama fisticuffs look tame. Back in 1972, following the watery collapse of Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie in the New Hampshire primary, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota emerged as the Democrats’ front-runner. But as he marched through the primaries, large swaths of the party worried that he was too far to the left and rallied behind other candidates—they just couldn’t agree on a single one to rally behind. Well into June, some Democratic leaders were openly mounting a “stop McGovern” movement. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the 1968 nominee, actively competed in the June primaries, while Muskie, having suspended his campaign weeks earlier, made a sudden cross-country tour to woo delegates and cast himself as the alternative to McGovern. Only after the South Dakotan won the June 21 New York primary did he effectively seal the nomination—and even then he opened the convention without the backing of his main rivals.
The 1976 primary was equally protracted. Jimmy Carter, then a former governor of Georgia, surprised everyone by staking out a lead with a win in Iowa, but his grasp on first place remained tenuous as Arizona Rep. Morris Udall and Washington Sen. Henry Jackson—men with more experience and stronger national followings—pressed on. Jackson finally bowed out on May 1, but at that point Idaho’s Frank Church and California’s Jerry Brown jumped in the race. Carter continued to stumble. On June 9, he lost not only to Brown in California but also to an uncommitted slate of delegates in New Jersey. Only a decisive victory the same day in Ohio helped Carter prevail, as he lined up key endorsements the next day from antagonists such as Jackson, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Udall conceded June 15.
Four years later, Carter, as the sitting president, should have had an easier time. But Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy launched a primary challenge that galvanized the Democratic Party’s liberals. By June, Carter had won enough contests to amass a lead in delegates that seemed to guarantee him renomination. Yet Kennedy refused to withdraw. He publicly carried on his campaign through high-profile speeches while allies worked behind the scenes to poach Carter’s delegates. “If Mr. Kennedy is feeling no great financial pressure to get out of the race,” the New York Times reported on June 11, “he also appears to be feeling no great pressure to withdraw to avoid splitting the Democratic party.” Days before the convention, Kennedy announced he would break precedent to become the first Democrat since William Jennings Bryan to address the convention before the first roll call—the gesture of an active candidate, not a peacemaker. He ultimately surrendered at the convention itself.
A swift resolution eluded the Democrats once more in 1984. Starting with an upset in the New Hampshire primary, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart mounted a surprisingly effective challenge to former Vice President Walter Mondale, who had long been the presumptive nominee. Mondale retook the lead in a March 12 debate when he punctured the image of Hart as a bearer of new ideas with the line from a Wendy’s commercial, “Where’s the beef?” Hart, however, refused to quit, scoring primary wins in Wisconsin, Ohio, California, and elsewhere. Though trailing in delegates, Hart sought ways to stay alive after the primaries, threatening a challenge to some of Mondale’s delegates. At length, on June 25, he effectively threw in the towel, appearing with Mondale to announce the end of his delegate challenge, though he still had his name placed in nomination at the July convention.
In the last two decades, Democrats have arrived at a nominee faster—yet the contests still dragged on longer than popular memory suggests. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis is remembered as having sewn up his nomination rapidly. But he didn’t earn the label of presumptive nominee until April 21, when he beat Tennessee’s Al Gore in the New York primary. And Jesse Jackson—whom the press never treated as a viable candidate, despite numerous primary victories—stayed in the race into June, when Dukakis nailed down the delegates he needed.
June was also the magic month for Bill Clinton in 1992, as Hillary has been reminding us recently. Clinton had been confident of getting the party’s nod since March, when his chief adversary, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, suspended his bid. But Jerry Brown, again playing spoiler, dogged Clinton throughout the remaining primaries, forcing him to limp rather than sprint to victory, as the New York Times put it. Both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 fairly coasted to the nomination after their victories in Iowa, but even they were still enmeshed in battle in March: Gore’s challenger, Bill Bradley, kept fighting until March 9, and Kerry’s strongest competitor, John Edwards, didn’t drop out until March 3.
Although the intraparty warfare sometimes got ugly in these races, and pundits warned of its harmful consequences, there’s little evidence to suggest that it ever made a substantial difference in the fall election. In 1976 and 1992, the Democrats won. In 1972, 1980, and 1984, they surely would have lost anyway. In 1988, Dukakis met defeat because of his weak general-election campaign, not his springtime battles with Gore and Jackson. It’s true that Gore had attacked him over a Massachusetts prison furlough program and that George H.W. Bush infamously followed suit, making Willie Horton part of the annals of negative campaigning. But providing ammunition to the other party is a hazard of even short primary campaigns, and the Republicans will surely need no help in depicting Obama as unready to fight a war on terrorism or Clinton as Lady Macbeth.
We should also bear in mind that Obama holds a much slimmer lead over Clinton than McGovern, Carter, and Mondale held over their closest challengers—or, for that matter, than any of the nomination-bound front-runners in the elections since. As of this writing, Clinton is actually tied with Obama among Democratic voters nationally in the Gallup daily tracking poll.
As long as this primary season has lasted, it’s still—amazing to say—relatively early in the calendar. In all likelihood, the Democrats will arrive at a nominee by June. But even if it takes a convention to settle the race, there will still be more than 10 weeks until Election Day—a span, we would do well to recall, that is a mite longer than the veritable lifetime that has already seemed to have elapsed since this year’s Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.