The April 22 Pennsylvania primary breathed new life into an underdog presidential campaign that had been on the ropes, ensuring that the race would continue at least through the Indiana primary in two weeks and raising new concerns within the party about the front-runner’s ability to close the deal.
Yes, this is old news—28 years old, to be exact.
The above summation, a variation of which ran in countless newspapers the morning after Hillary Clinton’s ten-point Keystone State win over Barack Obama this week, was just as fitting back in 1980, one of the last occasions that Pennsylvania played a meaningful role in either party’s nominating process.
On April 22 of that year, Democratic and Republican primary voters in Pennsylvania both had the opportunity to close out their respective nomination battles. But, just like the state’s Democrats did this week, voters in both parties instead opted to keep the process alive—and just like Clinton did this week, both victors optimistically predicted that a wave of victories in May and June would ultimately deliver them to their parties’ nominations. But it didn’t exactly work out for George H.W. Bush and Ted Kennedy.
Between the two ’80 contests, the dynamics of the Republican race more closely mirror those of the Clinton-Obama battle. Bush came to Pennsylvania a wounded man, battered by Ronald Reagan in a string of late winter and early spring primaries that moved the former California Governor into a seemingly insurmountable lead in delegates. The Bush campaign reeked of death, and a Pennsylvania loss would have made his demise—and Reagan’s coronation—official.
But Bush, campaigning as a moderate and best known as a former C.I.A. chief and U.N. Ambassador, worked the state intensely, promising Pennsylvanians the race wouldn’t be over if they said it wasn’t. They bought in and on primary day handed him a Hillary-esque victory, 54 to 45 percent.
“An enormous lift!” the victorious Bush declared, sort of like Clinton’s “tide is turning!” pronouncement on Tuesday. He immediately moved to carry over his winning ways into the next batch of states, starting with Texas two Saturdays later and Indiana the Tuesday after that. His campaign worked to sell the Pennsylvania outcome as a sign of doubt among Republicans about Reagan’s electability—recall that almost until the very end of the ’80 campaign, it was conventional wisdom that Reagan was too extreme to have wide electoral appeal.
But even as he celebrated, and as the press took the occasion to examine Reagan’s vulnerabilities, the fundamental math of the G.O.P. race was still squarely against Bush. He trailed Reagan in the delegate race, 607 to 126 (998 were needed to secure the nomination) and Reagan was well-positioned in many of the remaining primary states.
Sure enough, Reagan won a narrow victory in Texas 11 days later, 52 to 47 percent—a respectable showing for Bush (who claimed the state as his home and who had represented the Houston area in the House for one term in the 1960’s), but not the clear win he needed. The following Tuesday, Reagan obliterated him in Indiana, 74 to 26 percent, along with North Carolina (70 percent for Reagan) and Tennessee (70 percent, again). Pennsylvania had been a mirage, and Bush was history.
On the Democratic side, Kennedy scored a narrow 9,800-vote victory over Jimmy Carter in the Pennsylvania primary in ‘80. Since he’d been favored in the state, the close call wasn’t treated by the press as the same clear-cut triumph that Bush’s win was, but in victory Kennedy nonetheless had license to proceed with his campaign. His campaign had been slow in starting, losing most of the early primary and caucus contests to Carter and falling far behind in the delegate race. Pennsylvania marked the continuation of a Kennedy revival, which had started with his success in New York and Connecticut a few weeks earlier.
With his win, Kennedy then set his sights on Indiana two weeks later and the group of primaries (New Jersey and California chief among them) that would end the process in early June. His game plan was eerily similar to Clinton’s now: Behind 1,136 to 593 in delegates (with 1,666 needed for the nomination), Kennedy recognized that he’d end the primary season behind Carter in the delegate race, so he’d need to find a different route to the nomination.
There were no superdelegates back then, but there was a large chunk of uncommitted delegates. Kennedy’s plan was to score a series of impressive victories in the highest-profile late primaries, thus prompting the uncommitted slates to overlook Carter’s pledged delegate edge and to break his way. Additionally, the Kennedy forces calculated that a strong finish might make some of Carter’s delegates open to a rules change at the convention, one that would declare all delegates free to vote their consciences on the first ballot. Clinton, of course, is playing the same game now, hoping a run of dramatic wins will somehow convince hundreds of superdelegates to flock to her, unnerved by Obama’s inability to “close the deal.”
But Carter proved too strong in too many places for Kennedy to make the kind of late waves he needed to make. Indiana was the lone May 6 state that Kennedy contested (he ceded North Carolina and Tennessee to Carter, the southerner). To Indiana, Kennedy sent Carroll O’Connor, hoping that television’s Archie Bunker might win over some of the state’s blue-collar, culturally conservative voters for him. On the stump, he played up his strong union ties. It counted for little, though. Carter won on May 6, 68 to 32 percent.
Kennedy soldiered on through the rest of the primaries and did, in fact, win the big states in early June. But Carter also won states the rest of the way, places like Maryland and Oregon, where he had built-in advantages and where Kennedy couldn’t afford—financially or psychologically—to compete. When it was over, Carter had a clear delegate advantage and also had won more popular votes. Kennedy, despite his marquee wins, simply didn’t have anywhere near a strong enough case to produce the uncommitted delegate onslaught (and “open convention”) that his long-shot strategy required. Carter won a first-ballot nomination with ease.
The 1980 example is worth keeping in mind right now, as the Clinton campaign argues, as they must, that the momentum in the race has shifted. In reality, Obama—like Reagan and Carter in ’80—is well-positioned in numerous subsequent states, starting with Indiana. He simply has too many strengths in too many remaining states to lose his delegate and popular-vote edge. And with both of those metrics working in his favor, it’s pretty much inconceivable that the superdelegates, even if they have questions about his electability, will ultimately turn on him en masse.
In 1980, success in Pennsylvania could not make up for the crippling deficiencies of the Bush and Kennedy campaigns in numerous other states. Hillary Clinton’s success in Pennsylvania this week probably won’t be much different.
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