A short history of recent presidential primaries

eustace-tillarybama.JPGThis article in the Boston Phoenix provides an overview of recent contests for both the Democratic and Republican nominations (h/t Suburban Guerilla) and finds that running primaries all the way to the convention is far from unusual, especially among Democrats.  Author Steven Stark concludes, “[t]he fact is that, until now, candidates have rarely, if ever, faced such a concerted movement. . . urging them to drop out before their rival has clinched the nomination.”  He notes that this is “an argument virtually without precedent in modern political history, at least at this stage of such a close race. And while it does have its origins in an effort to preserve party unity, it also has its roots in an odd and vitriolic crusade to purge the Clintons and hand the nomination to a candidate who has yet, after all, to win a single large state’s primary (other than his own), let alone the nomination.”  (Well, I would say that Georgia is a significant large state victory, but that neither Obama nor Clinton is likely to win its Electoral College votes in November.)

Stark then reviews recent Democratic primaries, noting that in 1988 Jesse Jackson and in 1980 Ted Kennedy (who was after all running for the nomination against a sitting President!) waged their campaigns all the way to the party convention.  He also notes that rivals for the nomination carried on to the convention in both 1976 and 1960, and that Ronald Reagan (he of the “eleventh commandment:  Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,” remember?) went all the way to the 1976 Republican party convention also against a sitting president,Gerald Ford.  (Historiann isn’t a modern U.S. political historian, but that run-down looks accurate to me–historians with more knowledge, please render your judgment of Stark’s analysis in the comments below.)  “Yet,” Stark writes, “in one of the tightest races in modern history — before the opponent has come close to clearly clinching the nomination, before a number of voters have been given the chance to have their voices heard, and when Clinton still has a chance, albeit a slim one, to win the prize, she is continually vilified for failing to see the light and bow out. What gives?”

Well, as you regular readers know, Historiann has been asking“what gives?” about the blatantly unjust press coverage and the vitriol from within the Democratic party trained on Clinton all along.  Stark assigns a lot of blame to “Clinton Fatigue,” and raises the question of sexism, but Historiann thinks he overlooks another important factor:  the primary elections listed above weren’t nearly as close as this one is.  The reason Obama loyalists are calling for Clinton to drop out is that, to paraphrase Monty Python, she’s not dead.  Obama hasn’t been able to deliver the knockout blow–despite the hyperventilations of Chris Matthews, he failed to turn his Iowa triumph into a victory in New Hampshire, and he only ran even with her on Super Tuesday (although she took the big prizes, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York, natch).  He trounced her in the Crabcake Primaries, but then was himself soundly beaten both in Ohio and Texas in March.  The upcoming primaries look pretty good for Clinton, and with the exception of North Carolina, not so good for Obama.  This primary has been run to a draw, friends, so let’s see this “Drop Out!” demand as the political tactic it is.  In spite of her campaign’s blunders, wretchedly biased press coverage, and the condescention and insults aimed at her by a small but loud subset of Obama backers, she’s running just about dead even, and neither candidate will be able to clinch the nomination without the Superdelegates.  Neither candidate should drop out–they owe it to the Democratic Party to give us a fair fight, to let everyone vote, and to let all the votes be counted.  (He may yet do it in Pennsylvania–polls have shown that it may be a very competitive race, but a SUSA poll released today shows Clinton up by 18 points, and benefiting from a big swing in men’s votes.)

Recently, the Obama campaign has apparently sent out a new memo to its surrogates asking them to dial back the calls to “Drop Out Now, Hillary!”  (I heard Chris Dodd scaling back on The Ed Schultz Show last week, for example, and the candidate himself has walked this one back, too.)  That’s a good move, considering that at least half of us prefer Clinton and resent, in Stark’s words, “that Clinton is being held to a different standard than virtually any other candidate in history. . . . In this case, when Clinton is simply doing what everyone else has always done, she’s constantly attacked as an obsessed and crazed egomaniac, bent on self-aggrandizement at the expense of her party.”  If Obama is the nominee, he needs to make sure that Clinton doesn’t just lose, he needs to make sure that he wins decisively.  And the only way to do that is to let the people vote.

(For those who never tire of contemplating the bias in the media against HRC, check this out, via TalkLeft.)

0 thoughts on “A short history of recent presidential primaries

  1. Yet if there were no superdelegates, the race would be almost over. I’m coming to think that it’s the superdelegates who need to go in the future. That way the campaigns can just focus on winning votes and delegates and not worry about wooing party elites.

    But the author is surely right that this has happened many times before. One point, though, is that the track record for the candidates who survive these long nominating processes is not good: Ford lost in 1976, Carter lost in 1980, Humphrey lost in 1968, Mondale lost in 1984. The concern among Democrats is that this drawn out primary is helping McCain. They are right about that.

    I also think that with cable news coverage 24/7 and the Internet, the “exhaustion factor” from a long campaign is much more pronounced. It would be different if we were just reading the papers and hearing about it for a few minutes a night on television. But the information age means that we get non-stop 24/7 obsession with this race. It’s been like this since December and is unlikely to stop until at least early May. And it’s mostly a marketing brand thing: the two campaigns combined have spent something like $300 million trying to win votes. Everybody’s tired. Anybody who isn’t tired of this yet enjoys politics way too much.


  2. The people who are most tired of the campaign are in fact the 24/7 junkies who have not stepped back from it from, say maybe July of 2007, when most of us hadn’t even begun to focus on it yet. And nobody could be more “tired” of it than those trying to protect a longterm self-proclaimed lead. Maybe if the Obamaniacs had not been trumpeting their “invincible” lead since about the top of the third inning in mid-February they would be fresher and feel less like hitting the wall. People in places where the wave hasn’t crested yet are not tired at all. Indeed, they are the ones who will be most outraged if the race is called off early, whether for unity’s sake or to save resources for the “general,” or whatever. Go to Google “News,” click where it says “4,278 Stories,” and scan the ones from secondary markets in Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and here in Pennsylvania. Local organizing committees are fidgeting there like kids on prom night hoping they can lure a candidate or at least a high-level surrogate, and openly worrying that they will be denied the chance. It will be hard for the party to recover from the damage if whole swaths of the electorate are told that the shoot has to end early and the extras can go home now. (To say nothing of Michigan and Florida).

    As for the superdelegates, that may well be a feature of the process that is expendable. But given that they are part of the process, the “don’t overturn the will of the people” argument just doesn’t fly. If neither side reaches the stated finish line then the will of the people has failed on its face. If the intention was for the party closest to the endzone at that point to just get the needed block of extra votes, the rules would have specified that in so many words. You wouldn’t need windbag county commissioners and former governors, who are high-maintenance and expensive to fly around. There would just be a big bag of noncorporeal “votes” that would be awarded to the closest “Did Not Finish” candidate. Absent such a stated rule it seems clear that the superD’s are indeed charged with making a broadly-ranging judgement as to which candidate can best achieve the party’s goals. Though I have my own notions of who that should be, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be “big state” winners, or electoral block winners, or whatever. But for party leaders to hide behind the supposed sovereignty of what would at best be a modest fraction of the party electorate (when you consider all of the people who couldn’t make it to the caucuses, or stay around in Texas for three months to complete the game) would be pretty irresponsible and embarrassing.

    To address Historiann’s original query: I wonder if Eugene McCarthy would have dropped out after June 4, 1968(or if the football-playing Kennedys would have been uncompetitive enough to ask him to) had things not gone so horribly wrong that night in Los Angeles? Hubert Humphrey did not survive an overlong primary campaign and then fail as a result of exhaustion or bitterness. He fell into scoring position late and without having been adequately conditioned on the stump, and then failed to ramp up a credible campaign. He had been a hell of a campaigner as a young man, too, maybe the Obama of his day as the youthful mayor of Minneapolis who introduced the 1948 civil rights plank, but those days were long gone by the time he got to run for president.

    Anyway, good to see that the politicks thread is back in business.


  3. You’re right about the history part, Historiann. I really don’t understand this crap about “helping McCain” by continuing the Democratic primary. It’s only April! I just saw Hillary on “Ellen” yesterday, and her position on gay rights has made me even more convinced that she should stay in the race.


  4. David.

    1)Carter lost in 80 because of high interest rates and the Iranian crisis. He wasn’t very popular. Kennedy’s run didn’t help but I think he was toast anyway.
    2) No one could have beat Reagan in 84. The incumbent wins 2/3 of the time as long as the economy is good. (Carter and Bush I are examples of incumbents loosing because of bad economies.) Reagan’s economic problems occur early in his first term. By late 83, the economy was booming again.
    3) Ford had problems like the Nixon pardon. He blew alot of good will with that. He also had the famous Poland is not a memeber of an Iron curtain gaffe in the debates.
    4) Humphrey problem was that he was running in Johnson’s shadow for most of the campaign. It wasn’t until Oct 68 that he started to get out from under Johnson. If he had found his voice in say August or Spetmeber, it might have ben different. On the hand if Wallace hadn’t run, would Nixon had won a larger victory?

    IMO, Ford was possibly the only race where the long primary may have hurt. If I recall, the election was decided by Ohio. (Also, accoriding to the article the Democrats in 76 had a long drawn out primary as well.)

    What about the 72, 88, 00, and 04 GEs? Long primaries weren’t a problem but we democrats still lost.

    By the way I am not a historian but just a political junkie.


  5. Thanks, KC–I was hoping you’d either school me or back me up! Yes, I saw some descriptions of her Ellen performance–very good on both LGBTQ and the breast cancer initiative. A good friend (and occasional reader here) in her 40s had breast cancer this year–caught very early fortunately, but a reminder that we’re all at risk, even before 50. Medical people in my family have said that it’s similar to prostate cancer for men–if you live long enough and dodge all of the other bullets, it’ll likely get you in the end.

    And thanks too to BEW–you’re not a historian, but it looks like you may have lived through some (or all?) of those political seasons? Your post has the feel of an “eyewitness report!”


  6. I have to say, the Dems seem to have a rather short memory. While I by no means want HRC and Obama to play into Republican hands, I do think we settled way too early on a candidate last time around. Kerry was crowned very early in the race, and we all know how that turned out in the general. There is no question that they have become better candidates because of this competition, and it would be illogical to think that whomever wins, they won’t be in a better position to beat McCain as a result. All this craziness will be in the past, and the Democrats will support a Democrat.


  7. I just want to say that I agree with Historiann that it would be bad for Obama if Clinton just “left the race” right now. He needs to beat her. I think that will happen in NC and IN, but we’ll see.

    And my point on the superdelegates was that they should be dumped after this election. Of course they are a part of the process now, but they shouldn’t be. If the contest was to clinch a majority of pledged delegates, the math would be much simpler (and fairer) and there would be a clearer endline in sight. The superdelegates simply encourage a lot of backroom dealing.

    If there had been no supers this election, what we would see now would be a situation where Obama would have a clear, almost insurmountable, lead, but Clinton could keep making her case until he clinched the thing, which wouldn’t be until near the very end.

    Also, I don’t think the Dems settled too early. Kerry was blowing away the competition, and scored a clear victory on Super Tuesday. No one was going to catch him, everybody knew it, so they dropped out. The dynamics were very different four years ago than they are now.


  8. I’m not a historian, but I lived in Chicago during the 1968 convention. Lets remember what it was like: we had massive anti-war protests in the streets, looting and vandalizing of property in downtown Chicago, and out of control police dept. and Mayor Daley (the first one, not the one in control now) cursing other delegates and the press for reporting on it. The police were so out of control that they were tear-gassing people in front of the convention center, some of it leaked into the building itself. The reporters on the floor of the convention spent most of their time asking delegates what they thought about how the anti-war protesters where treated. There was condemnation of Daley from the floor, and the whole city was on virtual lock down.

    I think that had more to do with the republicans winning than anything else. Also there was a concerted “don’t vote” effort by some on the left.

    We on the left blew it.


  9. es–thanks for visiting and commenting. The Dems this year have a big advanage over 40 years ago, in that this war is not their war in the way that Vietnam was very much the Democrats’ war in 1968. (Then, with Nixon’s win, it became everyone’s war.) It would be good if Democrats would remember who precisely is responsible for Iraq and the mismanagement of Afghanistan, and remember that McCain is campaigning on “staying the course.”

    The Democratic Party: Often ineffectual, but at least we don’t go around starting illegal wars (anymore).


  10. Hisoriann,

    I was 16 when Nixon won in 68. Although I was aware of politics with Johnson, I really came of age politically with Nixon. (I don’t really have any political memories of Kennedy.) I learn, from both Johnson and Nixon, that politicians are all too human. You should never fall in love with one as they will disappoint you and break your heart. Watch what they do, not just what say. While they can do great things, you must always watch them, both Democratic and Republican. The Republicans, in my experience, are always worse about going extraconstitutional( think imperial presidency/unitary executive).

    If I could reform the way we select Democratic candidates, I would do way with caucuses, and just use primaries. I like the winner take all approach. Open primaries would be OK but you would have to register a month or two in advance. No democrat for a day primaries. And everyone has a chance to vote; no pemalizing voters for the mistakes of officials.

    Of course, I am not holding my breath…


  11. Just a few footnotes on what the recently-demised Norman Mailer called the “Siege of Chicago” in 1968. There may have been some “tear-gassing [of] people” near the convention itself, but by far the biggest body of demonstrators didn’t get anywhere near the convention, which was held in some antiquated and rickety armory well south of the Loop. The main battlefront was on Michigan Avenue near the Hilton Hotel, which I think was the official DNC headquarters. It was the determination of Daley’s cops not to let the marchers pass that point or to approach the convention that set off the bloodiest brawling. And it was there, at Michigan and Balbo, that demonstrators were pushed through plate glass windows into the laps of amazed conventioneers sitting exactly there where the AHA has often since met. It was more than teargas that leaked onto the convention floor. A much younger than we can imagine Mike Wallace, reporting for CBS, was in his own words “roughed up” on the floor just outside of camera range when trying to interview some party honcho. As noted above, the Vietnam war was thoroughly and undisputably the Democrats’ albatross. Nixon won partly on the strength of a claimed “secret plan” to end it. (Which presumably was to wait until 1972 and then bomb Hanoi and Haiphong off the map).

    Don’t remember the “don’t vote” part, but there was an
    effort to put Eugene McCarthy on the New York State ballot and maybe others that fall, that was derailed only when he refused to allow it, and the NY Sec. of State ruled that he couldn’t be involuntarily listed on the ballot. Humphrey couldn’t bring himself to break with the lame-duck Johnson, and thereby was doomed. Not sure if the left had much responsibility. And has anyone documented “looting” in Chicago that August?


  12. I agree with you, BEW, that we need to take a look at the crazy quilt system of nominating Democratic candidates. Many states (like my own) are quite attached to their caucuses, which is unfortunate, because they’re not very democratic. They run counter to the whole trend of vote-by-mail, and early voting, that have arisen to make voting more possible for more people. I don’t think I agree with you about having to register a month in advance–there aren’t enough “dem for a day” pranksters to make much of a difference, and opening up registration is a way of expanding the party. As you know, most people don’t pay attention until the last 2 weeks of the campaign, and if they haven’t registered before then in most states, it’s too late for them to participate at all. So, I favor allowing people to register at the polls–but I agree with you that they should be closed primaries. You have to be a Democrat (or Republican) before you can pick up a ballot to vote in the party primaries.

    Let’s ditch the delegates–super, pledged, and otherwise–and just do it by popular vote. The person who wins the most votes from fellow/sister Democrats is the winner, then.

    Indyanna, thanks for your further thoughts about Chicago. I’ve always found that convention/hotel neighborhood very cold and corporate, with that weird park across the street that seems so uninviting–was it always that way, or did Daley Sr. do a Baron Hausmann on Chicago after ’68 to make sure no hippies could erect barricades in the streets?


  13. I should also say that I hate winner-take-all, both for primaries and for the electoral college. It makes so many states unimportant, because one party/candidate has such a huge advantage there that the other party/candidate decides its not worth their trouble to challenge it. Obama will almost certainly lose Pennsylvania, but it is better that his margin of loss counts for something. If it didn’t, he probably would just busy himself campaigning in other states and ignore PA altogether.


  14. No national primary day–they should be spread out, so that different states and regions can share the love (and the advertising dollars). I also don’t think I like winner take all–that’s why I think if we just added up all the votes together in a running total, we’d get something more like direct democracy. (Versus the current system, which, like the electoral college, way overrepresents rural states and small states, and underrepresents cities and large states.)

    Screw you, Wyoming and Delaware, with your TWO senators each! (Or, we could just break California up into 10-15 city-states so that they could get 20-30 Senators instead of just two. How’d’ya like them apples, Rhode Island?


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