The Super Tuesday stalemate has only reinforced comparisons between the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama contest and the fight for the Democratic nomination 1984, another one-on-one race that pitted an insurgent against the party establishment — and one that wasn’t settled until the party’s July convention in San Francisco.
In that ‘84 campaign, the Obama role was played by Gary Hart, whose “new ideas” fueled a stunning 13-point victory in New Hampshire that rocketed him to the top of the race and, within weeks, brought Walter Mondale — who had entered the campaign as the most prohibitive favorite in primary history — to the brink of capitulation. A Hart sweep of Super Tuesday in early March 1984 would have flushed the former vice president from contention, but when Mondale narrowly won two states that day (to Hart’s seven), the press declared him reborn. When the primaries and caucuses finally finished in June, it was a draw: Both men had won about the same number of pledged delegates and Hart had even edged Mondale in the combined popular vote.
But the nomination was Mondale’s because most of the superdelegates — party leaders and elected officials who account for 20 percent of all convention votes — had been with him from the start, long before Hart had emerged as a viable option.
“My wife and I called every one of them personally between the California primary (on June 2) and the convention, and overwhelmingly they said, ‘I wish I hadn’t committed to Mondale, but I’m committed,’” Hart said.
Even though polls the weekend before the convention showed Hart vastly outperforming Mondale against Ronald Reagan, the superdelegates stuck to their commitments, Mondale was nominated, and the party suffered a 49-state landslide in the fall.
Hart, who teaches at the University of Colorado-Denver, is now supporting Obama. There are clear similarities between the old Hart coalition and the one Obama is building this year: college-educated voters, political independents, and younger voters. The Clinton and Mondale bandwagons also look alike, filled with members of core Democratic constituencies: women, Hispanics, lower-income white voters. (The main difference: Hart struggled to attract black support, which Obama has practically monopolized.)
Hart sees the Clinton-Obama race playing out the way his did, but with the potential for a very different ending.
“It will go to the convention like it did in ‘84, but (Obama’s) got a much better chance of getting support from superdelegates than I did, because most of them were lined up with Fritz before New Hampshire.”
That’s the key difference: While Hart had toiled in virtual anonymity before New Hampshire made him a star, superdelegates have been aware of Obama from the beginning of this race. And they may be savvier in 2008 about not lining up so quickly behind the establishment favorite. Superdelegates were a new creation in 1984.
“I assume (Hillary) and her husband are on the phone with them now, and they’re saying, ‘Remember when I had you to the White House,’ or ‘Remember when I campaigned for you,’” Hart said.
Obama’s pitch, Hart believes, is his ability to attract independents and Republicans to the ticket in the fall.
“It’s going to be a question of loyalty versus electability,” he said, “because it’s going to be clear to everyone by then that (Obama) is the strongest general election candidate.”
The electability argument, he stressed, is not just about whether either candidate is capable of winning the general election; it’s a matter of what effect their presence will have on other Democratic candidates who will be on the ballot with the ultimate nominee — more than a few of whom will be superdelegates at the convention.
“If some of them are elected officials who will be up in ‘08, they might be persuaded,” said Hart. “The idea is not just to win — it’s not to get dragged down.”
That might explain why so many prominent Democrats from red states — like Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius or Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson — have endorsed Obama, and why Obama won massive victories on Super Tuesday in Republican bastions like North Dakota, Alaska, Utah and Idaho (with a staggering 81 percent). Even if those states will be written off by Democrats in the fall, Hart said, picking a presidential nominee who can at least keep the bleeding to a minimum makes a big difference to Democratic candidates.
He offered his own personal experience as a senator from Colorado: “In 1980, I ran for re-election, and I had to do so on a ticket that included Jimmy Carter, who was very unpopular in my state. I had to run 26 points ahead of him in order to win. That is not something that is easy to do.”
One of the reasons Hart is so confident that the ‘08 race will last to the convention is Clinton’s ability to retain support from most of the core Democratic groups that Mondale did, which gives her a considerable leg-up — as it did for Mondale — in some of the biggest delegate prizes on the map, thereby making up for Obama’s considerable advantage in many smaller and mid-size states.
“I think that support has always been with her,” he said. “The question was whether it was going to erode and slip away, and at least at this stage, in states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and California. It has not.”
Looking at the upcoming primaries, Hart said he believes that Obama “has got to broaden his appeal to the Hispanic community,” especially if he wants to compete in the March 4 Texas primary. The other big states on the horizon include Ohio, also on the 4th, and Pennsylvania, which suddenly looks like it will be relevant on April 22 — after a five-week gap without a single nominating contest. Clinton enjoys the support of both states’ Democratic governors: Ted Strickland in Ohio and Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania.
“I lost Pennsylvania, but won Ohio — so that’s winnable for him,” Hart said. “Pennsylvania is a little tougher because it’s a state where there is considerable machine strength.”
The only way the race won’t reach the convention, according to Hart, is if Clinton runs out of money — something that suddenly seems possible, with the news that she loaned her campaign $5 million last month and that key staffers are working for her without pay — or if one of the candidates makes “a fatigue-induced mistake” that gets blown up by the media. Hart has some experience with this: In the final days of the ‘84 marathon, he made an off-hand remark about New Jersey and toxic waste that ended up dominating the news and quite possibly cost him the state — the only one of the final 12 contests that he lost.
“These candidates are really, really, really tired,” he said. “And I don’t think most people and most journalists understand that.”