If anyone ought to be skeptical about the notion that Barack Obama’s fall prospects have been damaged by the primary process, it’s the Clintons.
With Mr. Obama in mathematical control of the Democratic race (despite West Virginia), Hillary Clinton’s supporters have fallen back on the argument that Mr. Obama’s chances have been harmed, especially among those much-discussed “white working-class voters,” for the coming contest against John McCain.
It’s worth noting, though, that Bill Clinton himself had to overcome a very similar assertion—that he had emerged from primary season as damaged goods—on his way to the White House in 1992.
Around this very time back then, Mr. Clinton shook off his final Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown, only to find the party faithful shaking their heads in dismay. He trailed badly in national polls, a distant third behind President George H. W. Bush and independent Ross Perot, barely cracking 20 percent. After months of questions about his character, triggered by the Gennifer Flowers and Vietnam draft scandals but exacerbated by Mr. Clinton’s own too-cute-by-half rhetorical habits, his personal favorable rating lay in ruins—an astonishingly feeble 16 percent, according to a CBS-New York Times poll in June ’92.
No Democrat since George McGovern in 1972 (including Walter Mondale) had emerged from the primary process in worse shape—and no nominee has ever seemed so weak since then. And Mr. Clinton’s predicament seemed doubly dire because his struggles came in the face of the public’s loud clamor for change. Americans were itching to toss Mr. Bush and the Republicans out of the White House, but still they were tuning out the Arkansas governor.
Against the same “Republican attack machine” that had so monstrously carved up Michael Dukakis four years earlier, Mr. Clinton, the intraparty and media consensus went, was doomed. Top Democrats, it was reported, had concluded that “the so-called character issue, which bedeviled Clinton in the primaries, will prevent a critical number of voters from supporting him.”
Mr. Clinton, as you may have heard, shook off the apocalyptic forecasts and won a commanding victory in the fall, racking up 370 electoral votes and holding Mr. Bush to the worst performance for an incumbent since William Howard Taft finished third in 1912. And contrary to some revisionists on the right, Mr. Perot—who exited the race in mid-July only to reenter it at the start of October—hardly made a difference: Mr. Clinton’s lead over Mr. Bush was actually much larger in the months when Mr. Perot was on the sidelines than after his reentry.
The story of Mr. Clinton’s ’92 revival is one well worth keeping in mind now. The situations aren’t perfectly analogous—Mr. Clinton had the good fortune of running against a politically clumsy incumbent during a recession, while Mr. Obama faces a non-incumbent Republican nominee with a knack for connecting with independent voters—but the key ingredients that spurred Mr. Clinton are in place for Mr. Obama.
For one, just as in ’92, the electorate is agitating for change, of both the partisan and generational varieties.
In ’92, the country was mired in a recession (well, that was the perception, anyway—economists later declared that the slump had ended in November 1991) and the G.O.P. had held the White House for 12 years, the longest streak for one party since World War II. This made the public more receptive to the Democrats than in any of the previous three elections, and also far less willing to abide a Republican campaign based on character assassination.
The public looks even more derisively on the G.O.P. this year, with open-ended military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and a sputtering economy. Change is again in the air, an atmosphere that benefits the younger, “fresher” candidate. Mr. Clinton was 22 years younger than Mr. Bush in ’92, while Mr. Obama is 25 years Mr. McCain’s junior.
But Mr. Clinton’s main weapon in ’92 was personal: a story and a style that wore well with voters, reassured them, and made them want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Mr. Clinton got a fresh look from the public when the Democratic convention convened in July ’92, and his pitch-perfect reintroduction sent his poll numbers soaring. When it was over, he led Mr. Bush by nearly 30 points, and never again trailed in a single general-election poll.
Mr. Clinton’s story shows that even when the man and the mood match, it can still take voters a while to come around. But they do, eventually.