The Long Goodbye
It's too early to talk about Hillary's withdrawal.
A swift resolution eluded the Democrats once more in 1984. Starting with an upset in the New Hampshire primary, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart mounted a surprisingly effective challenge to former Vice President Walter Mondale, who had long been the presumptive nominee. Mondale retook the lead in a March 12 debate when he punctured the image of Hart as a bearer of new ideas with the line from a Wendy's commercial, "Where's the beef?" Hart, however, refused to quit, scoring primary wins in Wisconsin, Ohio, California, and elsewhere. Though trailing in delegates, Hart sought ways to stay alive after the primaries, threatening a challenge to some of Mondale's delegates. At length, on June 25, he effectively threw in the towel, appearing with Mondale to announce the end of his delegate challenge, though he still had his name placed in nomination at the July convention.
In the last two decades, Democrats have arrived at a nominee faster—yet the contests still dragged on longer than popular memory suggests. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis is remembered as having sewn up his nomination rapidly. But he didn't earn the label of presumptive nominee until April 21, when he beat Tennessee's Al Gore in the New York primary. And Jesse Jackson—whom the press never treated as a viable candidate, despite numerous primary victories—stayed in the race into June, when Dukakis nailed down the delegates he needed.
June was also the magic month for Bill Clinton in 1992, as Hillary has been reminding us recently. Clinton had been confident of getting the party's nod since March, when his chief adversary, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, suspended his bid. But Jerry Brown, again playing spoiler, dogged Clinton throughout the remaining primaries, forcing him to limp rather than sprint to victory, as the New York Times put it. Both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 fairly coasted to the nomination after their victories in Iowa, but even they were still enmeshed in battle in March: Gore's challenger, Bill Bradley, kept fighting until March 9, and Kerry's strongest competitor, John Edwards, didn't drop out until March 3.
Although the intraparty warfare sometimes got ugly in these races, and pundits warned of its harmful consequences, there's little evidence to suggest that it ever made a substantial difference in the fall election. In 1976 and 1992, the Democrats won. In 1972, 1980, and 1984, they surely would have lost anyway. In 1988, Dukakis met defeat because of his weak general-election campaign, not his springtime battles with Gore and Jackson. It's true that Gore had attacked him over a Massachusetts prison furlough program and that George H.W. Bush infamously followed suit, making Willie Horton part of the annals of negative campaigning. But providing ammunition to the other party is a hazard of even short primary campaigns, and the Republicans will surely need no help in depicting Obama as unready to fight a war on terrorism or Clinton as Lady Macbeth.
We should also bear in mind that Obama holds a much slimmer lead over Clinton than McGovern, Carter, and Mondale held over their closest challengers—or, for that matter, than any of the nomination-bound front-runners in the elections since. As of this writing, Clinton is actually tied with Obama among Democratic voters nationally in the Gallup daily tracking poll.
As long as this primary season has lasted, it's still—amazing to say—relatively early in the calendar. In all likelihood, the Democrats will arrive at a nominee by June. But even if it takes a convention to settle the race, there will still be more than 10 weeks until Election Day—a span, we would do well to recall, that is a mite longer than the veritable lifetime that has already seemed to have elapsed since this year's Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.