It's too early to talk about Hillary's withdrawal.

The history behind current events.
March 5 2008 11:33 AM

The Long Goodbye

It's too early to talk about Hillary's withdrawal.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Despite Hillary Clinton's victories in Ohio and Texas yesterday, she still trails Barack Obama in delegates. The Obama camp, claiming she won't be able to close the gap, is spinning the case for her to withdraw. Though self-serving, their argument is framed as a concern for the Democratic Party. At this late date, the reasoning goes, the Democrats need to stop squabbling and unite behind a nominee who can take on the Republican nominee, John McCain. Shouldn't Hillary graciously concede and end this endless primary season?

Like the calls for Al Gore to concede the presidency to George Bush in November 2000, this anxiety about the imagined consequences of a protracted fight misreads both history and the calendar. In 2000, pundits seemed not to know that contested elections in previous years—notably the 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon—remained officially unresolved until barely a month before Inauguration Day, and so they talked as if each hour of uncertainty brought the republic nearer to doom.


The calls to wrap up the Democratic primary race show a similar amnesia. To suggest that March 5 marks a late date in the calendar ignores the duration of primary seasons past. Indeed, were Hillary Clinton to have pulled out of the race this week, Obama would have actually clinched a contested race for the party's nomination earlier than almost any other Democrat since the current primary system took shape—the sole exception being John Kerry four years ago. Fighting all the way through the primaries, in other words, is perfectly normal.

The year 1972 is when the current primary system came into being, and to review the races ever since is to behold a panorama of Democratic infighting that makes the Clinton-Obama fisticuffs look tame. Back in 1972, following the watery collapse of Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie in the New Hampshire primary, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota emerged as the Democrats' front-runner. But as he marched through the primaries, large swaths of the party worried that he was too far to the left and rallied behind other candidates—they just couldn't agree on a single one to rally behind. Well into June, some Democratic leaders were openly mounting a "stop McGovern" movement. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the 1968 nominee, actively competed in the June primaries, while Muskie, having suspended his campaign weeks earlier, made a sudden cross-country tour to woo delegates and cast himself as the alternative to McGovern. Only after the South Dakotan won the June 21 New York primary did he effectively seal the nomination—and even then he opened the convention without the backing of his main rivals.

The 1976 primary was equally protracted. Jimmy Carter, then a former governor of Georgia, surprised everyone by staking out a lead with a win in Iowa, but his grasp on first place remained tenuous as Arizona Rep. Morris Udall and Washington Sen. Henry Jackson—men with more experience and stronger national followings—pressed on. Jackson finally bowed out on May 1, but at that point Idaho's Frank Church and California's Jerry Brown jumped in the race. Carter continued to stumble. On June 9, he lost not only to Brown in California but also to an uncommitted slate of delegates in New Jersey. Only a decisive victory the same day in Ohio helped Carter prevail, as he lined up key endorsements the next day from antagonists such as Jackson, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Udall conceded June 15.

Four years later, Carter, as the sitting president, should have had an easier time. But Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy launched a primary challenge that galvanized the Democratic Party's liberals. By June, Carter had won enough contests to amass a lead in delegates that seemed to guarantee him renomination. Yet Kennedy refused to withdraw. He publicly carried on his campaign through high-profile speeches while allies worked behind the scenes to poach Carter's delegates. "If Mr. Kennedy is feeling no great financial pressure to get out of the race," the New York Times reported on June 11, "he also appears to be feeling no great pressure to withdraw to avoid splitting the Democratic party." Days before the convention, Kennedy announced he would break precedent to become the first Democrat since William Jennings Bryan to address the convention before the first roll call—the gesture of an active candidate, not a peacemaker. He ultimately surrendered at the convention itself.


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