Clinton’s Time Machine

If only she could go back a few decades.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton

On Monday, as the primary season was about to end, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, one of Hillary Clinton’s most prominent supporters, offered a valedictory. Noting his candidate’s success in the later primaries, and her strength against John McCain in key battleground states, Rendell said, “Most Clinton supporters are filled with bewilderment that this is happening. … Why haven’t these results caused the superdelegates to come around?”

By the standards that once governed nomination fights, Rendell’s question is completely legitimate. Once upon a time, the charge Clinton staged over the primaries of the last three months would have raised serious questions among the undecided. She won most of the later primaries, including all the biggest states save North Carolina; she garnered upward of 500,000 votes more and, if the Real Clear Politics poll averages are right, she runs stronger against McCain than Obama does in the purple states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. (He runs stronger in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Iowa.)

So why have the superdelegates been moving to Obama, almost in lock step? The answer, I think, lies in the lesson recent political history has taught: If you fight among yourselves in the summer, you are doomed in the fall.

Once upon a time, no one would be asking a serious presidential candidate why he or she was taking the fight to the convention. Every nominating contest was settled there; that’s what the convention was for. The handful of primaries that took place were essentially testing grounds, to prove to the real decision-makers, who would gather afterward, that a candidate could win votes. As late as 1968, Robert Kennedy told reporters at his announcement in mid-March that there was no way the primaries would decide the contest. A presidential candidate could hope that he might gather delegates from other candidates who were “favorite sons” of their states; they might deliver their delegations in return for a Cabinet post or federal largesse. And thus a front-runner might fade after a couple of ballots.

Even after 1968, when the primaries became the principal method of collecting delegates, convention battles remained the norm—at least for a while. Sometimes this was because of the particular battle at hand. The Democrats who opposed George McGovern in 1972 saw his nomination as a threat to their political power. They used every tool they had, including a last-minute challenge to California’ winner-take-all delegation, to derail him. In 1976, passionate followers of Ronald Reagan tried to force Gerald Ford into naming his running mate before the presidential balloting at the convention, hoping whomever he picked would alienate a decisive handful of delegates. In 1980, Ted Kennedy’s campaign was so determined to pull away Jimmy Carter’s delegates that the convention adopted a “bind and yank” rule—forcing delegates to keep voting for their original choice. Even in 1984, Gary Hart’s campaign fought all the way to the convention floor.

But sometime around the mid-1980s, the political pros began to notice something: In contrast to past decades, when parties could rally after fierce nomination battles and win in November, contested conventions seemed to have become an infallible sign of defeat. From 1964 through 1984, the party with the contentious convention went down every time. Maybe it was coincidence; maybe all these candidates would have been doomed anyway. But the political class took notice. And, coincidence or not, nomination battles began to end earlier and earlier. In large part, this was because more states began holding their primaries earlier. But the frontloading also reflected the fact that candidates rarely managed to get a second wind. Under the onslaught of intense media coverage, a candidate who suffered an early defeat began to field the same questions as the manager of a New York baseball team: “Why are you losing? How long can you hang on?” Thus, from 1988 through 2004, nomination fights in both parties were effectively over by the spring. (When Sen. Clinton claimed late last month that her husband hadn’t really wrapped up the nomination until June 1992, she was wrong. Once he won the New York primary in April, he became unstoppable, and then everyone else dropped out.)

This year, much to the surprise of the political universe—and especially the Clinton campaign—the primary season, of course, did not end on Super Tuesday in February. And much to the surprise of political cliché-mongers, momentum took a leave of absence. (Mickey Kaus’ theory of “mutnemom,” where one victory seemed to trigger a loss in the next fight, seems more apt.) In a twist of political fate, the compressed calendar resulted in the longest primary season in more than three decades.

But in our era, the political pros who once would have sat up and taken notice of Clinton’s fourth-quarter charge have internalized Rule 1 of modern politics: no convention fights, especially if such a battle means a possibility, however slim, that the party would wind up reversing a majority of the pledged delegates and the popular will they reflect (more or less). The power brokers of an earlier age would have found this idea ludicrous. “Hey!” they might have yelped, “The primaries ended in a near-tie. We superdelegates exist to pick the candidate we think is the strongest!”

That, I suspect, is what folks like Gov. Rendell still have in mind. And they would have been right, once upon a time. It turns out that the only way Clinton could have beaten Barack Obama’s fundraising and organizing machine was to find a machine of her own: a time machine. (WABAC from Rocky and Bullwinkle, anyone?) If she could move the convention back a few decades, she’d have a genuine shot.