Finding the Exit

The moment presidential candidates know it’s time to go.

John Dickerson chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Hillary Clinton

At some point in the next weeks or months, either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama is going to face a lonely moment. Standing at the bathroom sink with a toothbrush or huddling with aides at campaign headquarters or collapsed on a couch at home with his or her spouse, one of them will decide that it’s over.

This will happen—honest. The campaign may seem interminable, but at some point, it’s going to end. The voters will cast ballots, and the superdelegates will scheme, but for Clinton (or, less likely for the moment, Obama), the contest will come down to this simple, stark moment of recognition.

But how does it happen? How does a presidential candidate decide to switch off his or her frantic determination to win every news cycle, shake every hand, and rebut every charge and instead end a quest that for many candidates has been the driving force of their adult lives? “Nobody can make the decision except you,” says Tony Coelho, who managed the early portion of Al Gore’s race in 2000 and was a confidant to Rep. Richard Gephardt during his 1988 campaign. “And you have to make the decision in a way that you don’t second-guess yourself the rest of your life.”

Heaven help the staffer who tries to get in front of a candidate who is not ready to get out of the race. “They know that the second they start thinking they’re not going to win, they crack,” says Joe Trippi, who also worked on Gephardt’s 1988 run. After Gephardt’s disastrous Super Tuesday showing, Trippi says he broached the idea of throwing in the towel with the former House majority leader and got a stirring rebuke. “I’m not getting out until they cut my head off and hand it to me,” Trippi remembers Gephardt roaring. “His neck was red, and you could see the veins.”

Usually, candidates get ushered to the threshold of departure: The voters spurn them, the press stops covering them, and they run out of money. “It’s like the seven stages of denial at hyperspeed,” says Mary Matalin, a veteran GOP operative who advised former Sen. Fred Thompson (remember him?) this time around. In 1996, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, spent record sums only to place fifth in the Iowa caucuses; he still had cash aplenty in the bank, but the voters clearly just didn’t want him, so he folded up shop. In 1976, when former Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma ran for the Democratic nomination, his campaign plane was full of reporters—until he lost Iowa and New Hampshire. “Hell, I had ‘em with me one day, and the next day I didn’t,” he says of the press. “That’s how you know.”

The biggest blow for any candidate, though, is the day the money disappears. “What gets them out is not that lightning strikes,” says Bob Beckel, who managed Walter F. Mondale’s 1984 campaign, “but when their treasurer arrives and says, ‘We’re a million bucks in debt.’ ” In conversations with campaign veterans and candidates, the scene they paint is always the same: stern men in shirt sleeves in a drab hotel room talking about the hard numbers and the folly of plunging into deep personal debt.

Clinton won’t experience that quick of a death. She has the money, votes, and media attention to continue until the convention. (So does Obama, for that matter, if he were suddenly to become the underdog.) Undecided superdelegates could rally to her, but this doesn’t look likely to happen anytime soon. The voters could show an overwhelming preference in the remaining 10 contests or deliver a big upset in a single, crucial one, but they’ve been no help so far in bringing the race to a close. “I don’t think it’s going to be a 3 a.m. phone call,” says Democratic stalwart Robert Shrum of the final moment that will persuade one of the candidates to get out of the race. “I think it will gradually dawn.”

The Obama forces tried to bring on the early dawn for Clinton, and it backfired. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., suggested recently that superdelegates should embrace Obama as the nominee before the primary voting ended. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., went further last weekend, saying that Clinton should drop out of the race immediately because she can never overcome Obama’s lead among elected delegates.

But if Clinton had even been flirting with leaving the race, her male colleagues gave her fine reasons not to. A ruling from a few white-haired white men from the most exclusive club in America was just what Clinton needed to energize her supporters, many of whom see deep sexism in the calls for her to drop out. Supporters now show up at Clinton rallies with signs that read, “Don’t Quit.” Clinton sent out two different fundraising appeals prompted by the calls for her exit. “They couldn’t have done anything more helpful to her,” says James Carville, the Clintons’ resident janissary.

All presidential candidates are ambitious, of course, but the decision to throw in the towel goes beyond one contender’s personal desires. Candidates keenly feel the weight of disappointing all those people at the rope lines and in the living rooms who have told them they’re pulling for them. “A lot of people invested time and money and effort into my campaign when I ran,” says Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 1996 and 2000. “One of my feelings was that I let them down. I haven’t done as well as I should have.”

Candidates who think they are fighting for a cause, like Teddy Kennedy in 1980 and Ronald Reagan in 1976, won’t get out of the race early because they are convinced that they are fighting for bedrock principles—the very principles that attracted them to politics!—and not their private ambitions. Clinton has been promising voters she’ll fight for them; with her own struggle to survive, she has won (as it were) the chance to show people just what kind of fighter she is. So it was probably inevitable that, in Philadelphia last Tuesday, she would compare herself to the town’s fictional boxing hero: “Could you imagine if Rocky Balboa had gotten halfway up those art museum steps and said, ‘Well, I guess that’s about far enough’? Let me tell you something, when it comes to finishing the fight, Rocky and I have a lot in common. I never quit.”*

So call it the Rocky syndrome—the just-before-the-end affliction that strikes losing candidates. They all go through a punchy period in which, no matter what the odds, they come to believe that they can pull out a victory with a roundhouse before the final bell. “You can convince yourself of anything,” says Beckel. “I was convinced with a couple more weeks that Mondale could have beat Reagan. How nuts is that?”

To make matters harder, there are plenty of real-life political comebacks that candidates can act out in their hotel rooms at night to comfort themselves. Remember that “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, they can tell themselves. John Kerry rescued his doomed 2004 campaign with a surprise win over Howard Dean in Iowa. Ronald Reagan looked as though he was in deep trouble when he fired his campaign manager late in his 1980 campaign. Sen. John McCain, left for dead last year, may be one of the best Lazarus stories of all. And there may yet be one more. “If Hillary Clinton wins the nomination,” says Trippi, “no candidate will ever want to get out.”

Perhaps the greatest impediment to clear thinking for a doomed candidate is simply that endurance in the face of doom is a key political trait—probably one crucial to their success in life so far. Toughness and endurance were, in fact, the only ideas the McCain team had left during its bleakest period. “I have a very complicated strategy for you,” adviser Charles Black says he told McCain as they tried to decide whether the senator could stay in after his staff, money, and lead in the polls had all disappeared. “Stay in the race until you’re the last man standing.”

For Clinton, who has endured smears, sneers, calls for her head, and a thousand editorial cartoons, this armor has sustained her throughout her career. “If you have scar tissue, then you know what it’s like to be beat up, and you can go through it rather easily,” says Coelho. “There’s no doubt that Hillary Clinton has scar tissue, which makes her immune to many of the attacks coming her way. When people call for her to get out, they are not appealing to her intellect; they are appealing to her scar tissue, and for her that means fight on.”

Candidates without a thick hide often grow one simply by going through the brutal campaign process. To have any success at all, they must become immune to the very forces that ultimately might signal that they need to drop out. Once they’ve bought into the process, the end-stage indignities—audiences of only a few dozen, the disappearance of your once-chummy campaign surrogates—are hard to recognize.

In the end, Clinton (or perhaps Obama) will likely call it quits when she (or he) decides, in a dark night of the soul, that continuing will permanently harm her (or his) political future. Then they will begin the long process of comforting disappointed supporters, watching the cameras disappear, and hearing the endless analyses of their political demise. They will feel, in some ways, as though they’re attending their own wake. Then perhaps they’ll have another solitary realization: The way they handle their exit from one presidential campaign might be the first step in building the case for the next one.

Correction, April 7, 2008: In the original version of this article, the Clinton quotation ended with the candidate saying, “I never give up,” which was as it was reported in a number of contemporaneous accounts of the event. An audio recording suggests Clinton misspoke and said, “I never get up.” The four words in question have been deleted. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)