Close, But Not Suspenseful

As Hillary Clinton formally conceded the Democratic nominating contest over the weekend, rough drafts of the history of her campaign against Barack Obama began appearing newspapers across the country, most of which noted that this had been the closest primary campaign in history.

But this is only a partially accurate legacy for the 2008 Democratic race.

From a strictly numerical standpoint, the Clinton-Obama contest was the closest Democratic race in the modern primary era. When Obama reached the magic number of 2,118 delegates last Tuesday, Clinton herself had over 1,900, and she never trailed by more than 150 pledged delegates at any point during the six-month campaign. Plus, her popular-vote tally – out of a record 36 million Democratic ballots cast – ended up almost identical to Obama’s. No previous Democratic contest can match that statistical closeness. (Although the 1976 Republican race, in which Gerald Ford beat Ronald Reagan by 117 delegates, can.)

That’s only half the story, though. Even though the numbers were tight, the race was actually devoid of much suspense from the middle of February on. It was then that Obama ran off a string of 11 consecutive primary and caucus victories and built an insurmountable pledged-delegate lead. After that onslaught, Clinton retained a theoretical shot at the nomination, but her hopes depended entirely on convincing a wave of superdelegates to ultimately back her in the face of charges of overruling “the will of the people.” There was never much of a chance of that happening.

In other words, this year’s race was only truly up-in-the-air for the first six weeks of the primary season. Previous Democratic contests, while not as numerically even, have featured more prolonged and sustained uncertainty than this.

Take the 1980 battle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. Carter, buoyed by the rally-around-the-flag effect of the Iranian hostage crisis in the early days of that campaign, amassed a lopsided delegate advantage in the first half of the primary season – pulling 800 delegates ahead of Kennedy, a far, far wider margin than Obama ever enjoyed.

But the race was hardly considered over because the nominating process was understood differently by the public. The idea of winning the nomination through backroom maneuvering was not considered the crime against democracy that it now is. Brokered conventions and multiple convention ballots were not such a distant memory in 1980, so Kennedy was still seen as viable even as he fell behind, since a strong late showing in the primaries could have given him leverage to supplant Carter in the delegate count in the run-up to – or during – the convention.

And, in fact, Kennedy did finish the primary season with a kick, winning California and New Jersey on the final day of contests in June – and winning several hundred thousand more popular votes that day than Carter. Kennedy still faced a gaping delegate shortfall, but he pursued his campaign over the summer, hoping that Carter’s declining popularity – the hostage issue had turned around and was now undermining him – coupled with Kennedy’s own strong finish in June would convince party bigwigs to turn on the president at the convention. Alternately, some figures in the party also pushed the idea of drafting a compromise candidate, since Kennedy’s general-election standing didn’t look much better than Carter’s.

In the end, Carter’s delegates held and the president was renominated. But Kennedy – or anyone in his position – wouldn’t be able to pursue such a tactic these days. He lost the pledged-delegate race overwhelmingly (there were no superdelegates in ’80) and also lost the cumulative popular vote – decisively. Clinton this year was much closer in both categories, but her campaign – after mid-February – wasn’t treated by party leaders as being as credible as Kennedy’s was in ’80.

The reason: The public has come to view the primary process as a miniature general election. The perceived will of the people is now considered paramount, so Clinton – even though she was much closer to Obama than Kennedy was to Carter – was doomed as soon as Obama became the clear pledged-delegate winner. There’s just no room in the politics of 2008 for the kinds of games that Kennedy played in 1980.

Another reason why this year’s “close” race wasn’t actually so close is the lack of volatility in delegate math.

When Obama pulled 150 pledged delegates ahead of Clinton in late February, it quickly became clear that she wouldn’t be able to catch him. Over and over, we heard about the Democratic Party’s allocation rules, which basically ensure an even distribution in Congressional districts in a two-candidate race as long as both candidates secure more than 40 percent of the vote. This year, it was possible to predict with a remarkable degree of precision how many delegates each candidate would win from each state weeks or months ahead of time.

So it was that Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter caused quite a stir in late February when he wrote – based on projection he made using Slate’s popular “delegate calculator” – that Obama would win the pledged-delegate race even if he lost to Clinton in all of the final 16 contests. As long as Obama received 40 percent or more in most of those states, Clinton wouldn’t be able to build the kind of massive margins she’d need to reap a meaningful delegate windfall. It was at this point that the full extent of Clinton’s helplessness became clear – since it also became clear that uncommitted superdelegates, as a bloc, would not be lining up against the overall pledged-delegate winner.

There used to be more volatility in the Democratic delegate math. In the 1984 race, another Democratic contest that was more volatile than this year’s, many states required voters to vote for the little-known delegates pledged to the presidential candidates, and not for the candidates themselves. And some even mandated the kind of winner-take-all delegate model (at the Congressional district level) that Republicans use in some states today.

The implications were considerable in ’84. By midway through that contest, Gary Hart had fallen behind Walter Mondale in the delegate race by a much worse margin than Clinton ever faced this year. But the rules gave him an opportunity to eat more considerably into that gap than Clinton ever could cut into hers.

In 2008, a swing of a few points in any state didn’t have a major impact on delegate allocations. In Ohio, for instance, Obama lost by 10 points to Clinton. But she only won seven more delegates than him. Whether she won by 10 or 5 points really didn’t matter much. Not so in ’84, when Hart won California by just three points – but the state’s delegate race by a three-to-one margin, a net gain of nearly 200 delegates for Hart. If that kind of volatility existed in 2008, Clinton would never have been written off when she trailed by just 150 delegates.

This year’s Democratic race was undeniably historic and momentous, and the level of sustained interest it generated – from early 2007 until last week – may never be matched again. But it was not the most suspenseful one.

Close, But Not Suspenseful