Hillary Clinton’s thematic inspiration may come from Walter Mondale and his “I am ready to be president now” campaign of 1984, but the uphill climb to the nomination she now faces actually mirrors the challenge confronted by a different Democratic candidate from days gone by: Ted Kennedy in 1980.
Kennedy, in challenging President Jimmy Carter, won enough giant industrial states to keep afloat during the months-long primary season, even as Carter commanded the edge in overall delegates and cumulative popular votes. Instead of surrendering after the last primary in early June, Kennedy soldiered on, intent on using the summer to sow doubts about Carter that might prompt delegates to turn on the president and hand Kennedy the nomination.
Likewise, despite her revival in Ohio and Texas (and Rhode Island), the only realistic scenario under which Clinton secures this year’s nomination will require her to engineer the kind of backdoor maneuver that Kennedy failed to pull off 28 years ago.
Given the number of Barack Obama-friendly states that have yet to weigh in (starting with Wyoming and Mississippi in the next week), Clinton will most probably finish the primary season trailing her opponents in both delegates and popular votes—although Obama should be short of the magic number of delegates needed for a first-ballot nomination. Clinton would then need to convince superdelegates to support her anyway, in effect overruling the primary season verdict.
Many of the obstacles that killed Kennedy’s effort suggest a similarly futile end to Clinton’s campaign this year.
Like the former first lady, Kennedy stared down several do-or-die primary tests, scoring game-saving victories just as the media was agitating for his exit from the race—most notably in the middle of April, when he notched back-to-back wins in the industrial behemoths of Pennsylvania and Michigan. But his margins in both states were narrow. After falling desperately behind in the delegate race early on, those victories did little to dent Carter’s overall advantage.
Kennedy hoped the Pennsylvania and Michigan results would spill over to the late contests of May and June, but the pattern that prevailed throughout the primary season largely held: Carter cleaned up in the small and mid-size states that voted in May (such as Maryland, North Carolina and Oregon) while Kennedy finished with a kick, prevailing in New Jersey (a clean sweep of every Congressional district) and California on June 3, the last day of voting.
The primary season wrapped with Carter leading the delegate race 1,964 to 1,239—with only 1,666 delegates needed to win the nomination. But Kennedy argued—à la Clinton—that his success in the biggest (and most Democratic) states on the map somehow counted for more. He also claimed the late momentum: He won 200,000 more votes than Carter in the June 3 contests.
“Tonight is the first night of the rest of the campaign,” Kennedy thundered on June 3. “The people have decided that this campaign must go on!”
There were no superdelegates in ’80, so Kennedy’s summer strategy involved fighting for a rules change at the August convention, pleading with delegates to scrap the rule that bound them to the results of their states’ primaries and caucuses. He also demanded more debates with Carter and set about reinforcing every doubt he’d raised about the president, hoping to entice delegates to embrace the “open convention” plan.
For a while, it seemed like it might work. Polls showed Carter running far behind Ronald Reagan, and the short-term boost he’d received from the failed attempt to rescue hostages from Iran had worn off. A midsummer scandal involving Billy Carter, the president’s brother, and his ties to the Libyan government added new urgency to the open convention campaign, and 40 Democratic members of Congress, fearful that Carter might jeopardize their majority, signed on. Buttons reading “Win With Ted, Lose With Carter” were distributed.
But that’s as far as it went, for several reasons. For one, there were just as many doubts about Kennedy’s electability—and maybe more—as there were about Carter’s. Chappaquiddick was barely a decade old and polls found him to be the most polarizing politician in the country. And for all of the Kennedy nostalgia within the party, a sizable chunk of Democrats had strong personal distaste for Ted, because of the nature of the campaign he waged against Carter or because of his own personal issues. He also had a weak moral claim to the nomination, having lost the delegate and popular vote tallies during the primaries.
Very briefly, a movement emerged to open the convention but also to draft a fresh candidate into the race for Carter and Kennedy delegates to rally around. The names of Ed Muskie, Scoop Jackson, Mo Udall and even Walter Mondale, Carter’s vice president, were tossed around, but there were too many conflicting interests among the conspirators for the scheme to take flight. When Kennedy placed his proposed rules change before the convention on August 11, it failed on a 1,936.4 to 1,390.6 vote, and Carter was the nominee.
This year, Clinton won’t need to push for the same kind of rules change. Her hopes of overtaking Obama in the summer months will instead rest on superdelegates. But like Kennedy 28 years ago, she will face enormous skepticism in convincing delegates—in spite of consistent polling evidence to the contrary—that she is the more electable candidate. And, in the same way that the revered Kennedy name had its critics, the Clinton name has more than its share of influential detractors within the party.
The theoretical wild card in this is Florida and Michigan. If new primaries (or caucuses) are held in both states and Clinton somehow wins both overwhelmingly—assuming that she has by this point narrowed Obama’s delegate lead by winning a series of lopsided upset victories—she could conceivably overtake him in the delegate and popular-vote tallies. Under this scenario, she’d have an easy case to make over the summer.
That remote possibility aside, Clinton is likely to end up proving what Ted Kennedy showed 28 years ago: There’s no shortcut to the Democratic nomination.
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