“In many ways,” the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney wrote over the weekend, “Mr. Obama is wheezing across the finish line after making a strong start: He has won only 6 of the 13 Democratic contests held since March 4, drawing 6.1 million votes, compared with 6.6 million for Mrs. Clinton.”
Actually, it’s now worse than that: Mr. Obama’s late-in-the-campaign numbers took an additional hit on the final weekend of primary season, when Puerto Rico handed him his eighth loss since March. It is now indisputable that Mr. Obama has struggled since emerging as the likely nominee in February.
The one contextual bright spot for Mr. Obama is that it is not a new phenomenon for a presumptive Democratic nominee to finish the nomination battle badly. And recent history shows that a poor form in the late contests isn’t necessarily a harbinger of general election peril.
This actually marks the fifth time in the party’s eight previous nominating contests that the ultimate winner has finished with a whimper, and not a bang. On two of those previous occasions – Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984 – the party went down to defeat in November. But the other two times – Mr. Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 – the party prevailed in the fall.
The ’80 and ’84 elections, both thumping landslides for Ronald Reagan, were probably out of reach for the Democrats from the very beginning. Perhaps another nominee would have fared slightly better, but no Democrat could have radically reduced Reagan’s 49-state, 525-electoral vote thrashing of Mr. Mondale or his 44-state romp over Mr. Carter.
But the elections of ’76 and ’92, contested just as sagging national confidence and years of Republican White House control combined to poison the public’s mood against the G.O.P., were eminently winnable for the Democrats. That Mr. Carter and Mr. Clinton succeeded in those general elections demonstrates just how fleeting a candidate’s springtime struggles can be.
The case of ’76 provides the more perfect parallel to the current race. There are obvious thematic similarities between Mr. Carter, the Georgia peanut farmer who preached “trust” to a country that had turned cynical after Watergate, and Mr. Obama, who promises “hope” to Americans dispirited by the deception and cronyism that has defined the current administration’s tenure.
Just as Mr. Obama grabbed a commanding lead with a crafty strategy – amassing massive delegate advantages in small caucus states that Hillary Clinton ignored – Mr. Carter, too, outfoxed the Democratic establishment, becoming one of the first candidates in the era of the contemporary primary calendar to grasp the fact that early momentum could be just as important as delegate-counts.
Just like Mr. Obama this year, Mr. Carter stalled almost as soon as the inevitability of his nomination dawned on his rivals and the party establishment. By early May of ’76, an informal “Stop Carter” coalition emerged, and so did two new candidates: Senator Frank Church of Idaho and Governor Jerry Brown of California. Two others – Hubert Humphrey and Ted Kennedy – waited in the wings, hoping the “Stop Carter” movement would flourish in the late primaries and create a brokered convention.
On May 11, Church won Nebraska. The next week, Mr. Brown trounced Mr. Carter in Maryland while Mr. Carter barely won Michigan (by one point). Then Mr. Brown took Nevada, Rhode Island and New Jersey (again with “uncommitted” slates in both) and California, while Church grabbed Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
Mr. Carter was reeling, but he could afford it – such was his overall delegate advantage. With a win in Ohio in June 8, Mr. Carter surpassed the magic delegate number. Slowly, the “Stop Carter” movement receded, and by the time he accepted the nomination in July, Mr. Carter had opened up a 33-point lead over Republican Gerald Ford.
The situation in 1992 wasn’t quite the same, in that Mr. Clinton didn’t actually lose any of the late primaries after becoming the presumptive nominee courtesy of an April 7 win in New York.
Nonetheless, by the spring of ‘92, Mr. Clinton’s campaign was growing weaker by the day. The “character” issues that nearly derailed him early on continued to haunt him. Influential party figures openly questioned the wisdom of nominating him, and Ross Perot, the independent billionaire, surpassed him in general election polls. By the end of May, Mr. Clinton was barely cracking 20 percent against George H.W. Bush and Mr. Perot (who regularly netted around 15 percent of the vote on write-ins in the late spring Democratic primaries).
But as with Mr. Carter, Mr. Clinton’s struggles were a distant memory by July. After his convention acceptance speech, Mr. Clinton opened a lead of nearly 30 points over Mr. Bush, and he never trailed in a single fall poll.
Just like 1976 and 1992, the political climate unquestionably favors the Democrats this year. Mr. Obama is wheezing now, but he may be breathing easier by the fall.