John Dickerson discusses the reasons candidates quit or fight on.

John Dickerson discusses the reasons candidates quit or fight on.

John Dickerson discusses the reasons candidates quit or fight on.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
April 7 2008 6:21 PM

When To Hold 'Em, When To Fold 'Em

John Dickerson takes readers' questions on the candidate's decision to quit or fight on.

Slate political writer John Dickerson was online to chat about how and why past presidential candidates have made their decisions to end their campaigns, and what this tells us about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

John Dickerson: Hello everyone. I look forward to answering your questions.

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Anonymous: I support Obama but I think it's ridiculous for Clinton to bow out now. Granted, I am not a political pundit, campaigner or other, but there are many real issues to debate in this election. I think the way the Democratic Party gets the campaign back on track is to speak to issues. Shouldn't the party chair speak to that issue as well?

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John Dickerson: I think that's right. The party chair should speak up and Dean eventually did, saying he hoped people would make their decision around July 1, which means not before then. Trying to get Clinton out early wasn't working as a political matter for Obama either.

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Washington: John, my understanding is that Ted Kennedy was much farther behind Carter in delegates and the popular vote in 1980 than Clinton is today, but refused to pull out until the convention. Was this viewed as being the blow that helped kill Carter, or was he doomed as a candidate even without this?

John Dickerson: Great question. Lots of people think Kennedy killed Carter. Though there were also lots of people who thought Carter was doomed from the start. In my reporting the distinction between Kennedy and Clinton made by Democrats was that Kennedy had issues he was fighting for (ERA, taxes and the draft) that made his crusade about the party and what it stood for, while Clinton's is not issue oriented in the same way.

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Minneapolis: How much is the decision to bow out tempered by the notion that one may have another chance in the future? Huckabee certainly believed that any success in 2008 was an investment of political capital in his 2012 campaign. If neither of the two remaining Democratic candidates salt the earth en route to pulling out, it certainly can be argued that another campaign is possible. Is this consolation prize even worth mentioning?

John Dickerson: I think ultimately those candidates who don't get out right away (because money problems force them to) make their decision based on a bet that staying in any longer hurts their long term prospects.

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Washington: Why should a candidate who hasn't been completely blown out in the primary quit? This is one of the first times in recent memory that I've seen a Democrat with some backbone actually fight for what they believe in. I'm an independent, and I often have a hard time taking the Democrats seriously.

John Dickerson: The arguments for Clinton to get out are largely based on the idea that she's "harming the party" by staying in and raising ugly issues in the public square that harm the eventual nominee. One example was the recent news that she told Bill Richardson that Obama "can't win." (i.e. that he's fundamentally flawed). This is good ammunition for McCain, some Democrats argue and wouldn't have gotten out there if she wasn't fighting so hard to stay in.

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St. Simons Island, Ga.: Mr. Dickerson, I am a regular reader of Slate and of your columns in particular. You do very fine work. About Sen. Clinton's campaign: Most of her remaining support is from feminists and blue-collar workers. I believe the feminists will stay with her, but the disclosure of the Clintons' tax returns has to hurt her with the blue-collars. Indeed, I expect her polling numbers this week in Pennsylvania will take a significant dive. How do you see her campaign being affected by the disclosure?

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John Dickerson: Thanks. I wonder about the blue collar vote. Some polling on other issues shows that people don't really mind if others are rich (as long as those rich folk aren't seen to prosper unfairly). Some advocacy groups that have thought about beating up on the wealthy owners of certain corporations have decided not to because it doesn't really work. This, I should note, is complicated. Plenty of polls show that disparity in CEO pay gets people furious— but that's not exactly what would hurt the Clintons in this case.

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Fairfax, Va.: What role does concern for the good of the party play in candidates' decisions about when to drop out? When Obama won 12 in a row it seemed obvious that he simply was more popular than Clinton, so Clinton chose to rip him apart rather than acknowledge that the party had the most appealing candidate it has had in years. Theoretically she could have quit then and got on his bandwagon. That would have been good for the party and probably would have preserved the excitement surrounding Obama, which has declined.

John Dickerson: This is certainly the case the Obama forces would make. Those in the Clinton camp would argue that he's just not a general election candidate and that the later contests will show that. If Clinton loses one of the big later contests though, the argument is largely sunk.

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Fairfax, Va.: If Clinton stood for something other than for herself I could understand fighting on to the end because a noble cause was at stake; but because she is not associated with a cause, what is the point of her continuing on (and in the process exposing her disdain for the larger good of ending Republican rule and rebuilding America)?

John Dickerson: The Clinton folk would argue that her cause is the Party cause. Since she believes that Obama is a flawed general election candidate, she thinks all that Democrats believe in will disappear if he wins the nomination. The stakes have to be that high for Clinton as she makes her pitch or people will think she's only in this for personal ambition.

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Alexandria, Va.: All this "Hillary has to quit now" stuff is driving me crazy. I know it doesn't look good for her, but that's her call. And rules are rules—no Michigan or Florida primaries, because that was the rule. But we can't allow superdelegates to independently choose, and we can't allow the (agreed upon) process to work to completion. And while there's some venom that seems destructive, all I can say is that the Republicans have been quite good at cooking up worse stuff for years.

John Dickerson: I agree and it seems most everyone else does too. The point of the piece though was to look at how this moment will come for any candidate who must, some day, face that deciding moment.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What role does the Credentials Committee play at the Democratic National Convention—and is this a committee that could manipulate the outcome if it wanted to? For instance, I believe seated delegates vote on seating challenged delegates, so the manner in which challenges are accepted, heard and voted upon and then accepted or rejected could alter the final delegate count toward one candidate or another. How much leeway does the Credentials Committee have in possibly creating such a scenario?

John Dickerson: It's a great question. The rules are very complicated. The committee could vote this summer when it meets on FL and MI. Or, it could meet at the convention to make the call. The committee is made up of members selected by Howard Dean and a far larger body made up of delegates divided up roughly based on primary and caucus performance. If it gets this far it'll be a nightmare.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Thank you for your excellent and reflective article. When the time comes for Sen. Clinton to decide that her long-term career aspirations are better served by abandoning her presidential campaign this year, will she be the one one who puts the question on the table, or will it be someone else? If it is not her, then will it be anyone other than her husband?

John Dickerson: This is the tension. When you get up every day to fight and are convinced it is that quality that serves you best in life, how do you possibly pull the plug on your own campaign? I think it's a dawning realization kicked off probably by a trusted source. That might be her husband or one of her close aides from over the years.

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Washington: What does it mean to "quit"? Is there necesarily a bright line for quitting? If Clinton's money dried up, could she reduce campaigning to a minimum without admitting that she had lost—just her and Bill and an old RV on the road for two months—and claim "it worked for McCain"? Or does a campaign that won't cripple her gravitas as a senator require some minimum amount of cash? Could she declare a "suspension" or "temporary halt" while still trying to hold onto her pledged delegates? Can a candidate announce the formation of a "quitting exploratory committee"?

John Dickerson: She could do any of those things but she'd probably take a biger credibility hit than she'd want to. Dragging it out too far sours people against any future run she might want to launch.

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Bow, N.H.: Good piece yesterday, thank you for that. As to Clinton, didn't she really lose this race (at least as to pledged delegates) last November and December when she failed to plan (as Obama did) for a long race? Where were the people to tell her that after Iowa or after Super Tuesday? Also, where is the logic in this—she is being told to leave the race just like any other (male) candidate would be, but precisely because she is being treated like any other (male) candidate, this is somehow sexist?

John Dickerson: This is certainly a view the Obama folks would agree with. I think it's reasonable though for Clinton supporters to say though that since the superdelegate rules were put in place to balance against the overheated passions of the voters it's okay for Clinton to play by those rules. She's not cheating, as some might argue, by trying to win this way. Sexism charges are a tricky thing. That it was white men with white hair telling the only woman to drop out certainly didn't add clarity to the situation.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Hi John—thanks for taking my question and for your great reporting. If it were Republicans involved in the intense fight for the nomination—let's say it was McCain and Giuliani, for instance—would anything be different? In other words, is the fact that the race is still unresolved a "Democratic Party" problem?

John Dickerson: It's not a Democratica Party problem other than the fact that the Party nominating process, with its FL and MI nightmare this year, is so complicated it seems it might have been cooked up at a bar late one night. When I talked to Sen. Alexander about his run in 1996 he said that Newt Gingrich called for him to drop out for the good of the party just as Alexander thought he was getting going.

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Detroit: In regard to "how does a presidential candidate decide to switch off his or her frantic determination to win," it is hard when one feels that one is preordained to be president, rather than that it is the right of voters to determine this. Here in Michigan, Hillary Clinton wants her "delegates" even though most Democratic candidates had their names removed from the ballot once the National Democratic Committee decided that such delegates would not be seated after Michigan moved up its primary. Many Obama supporters consequently never voted in Michigan. This "scorched earth" approach to politics has been around for decades. (Even with Gore having gotten the national popular vote, Bush in 2000 did not want a recount in Florida, nor did the Supreme Court.) Some candidates are not attuned to what voters are saying, and only listen to their own desires.

John Dickerson: That may be so, but the political instinct— fight for every vote runs pretty deep with every candidate.

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Norman, Okla.: Why do people really seek this office/position? As I recall, the pay is rather poor considering all the responsibility. Is it the post-presidency that they really seek? Is it the position of power that's the focus?

John Dickerson: We've learned from the Clinton tax returns that post-presidencies can be lucrative. People want to be president for a lot of different reasons. They want to make a difference, they want the power and they want to feel productive in their chosen field.

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Scio, Ore.: I was always taught that it was bad sportsmanship to quit in the middle of a race—even if you have to walk to the finish line, it's the sign of a winner to do so. I can't really say what that says about people who tell you to get out. Perhaps those people have set such low standards for their selves that quitting and giving up is a way of life for them, and acceptable. Thats a real shame!

John Dickerson: It is bad sportsmanship though I suppose there's some other sports analogy here, perhaps from chess, where players concede when it's obvious they can't win. Of course, it's not as obvious that Clinton should bow out as some Obama supporters would like to argue. If it were all easy street, the Obama team wouldn't be working so hard to pound Clinton into the topsoil.

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Malvern, Pa.: John, how much more of their personal fortune do you think the Clintons will be willing to invest in her campaign? In the end, will it make a difference? If you were 60 years old and worth more than $100 million, would you work 20 hours a day for a job that is in so many ways totally thankless? Just wondering.

John Dickerson: I think they might not drop any more coin for a little while. Here's why: It looks like they've lost the support of regular check writing folks and it raises questions about where the money came from again.

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Arlington, Va.: What do you think of the discussion that if Clinton loses the nomination she would rather that McCain win this fall, so that she can run in 2012? Much of what she is doing now sure seems intended to either make her win or blow up the party trying. Should Harry Reid offer her the Senate Majority Leader position?

John Dickerson: It's certainly an argument in the case against Clinton. I think we'll really know whether there's any evidence for this (so far there isn't, I don't think) when we get to see how hard she works for Obama if he's the nominee.

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Los Angeles: I'm an independent who usually votes Democratic, but I just haven't bought into the Obama vision. I have a problem with his lack of national and international experience and the way he casts that as a positive. If Clinton drops out, my instincts tell me to vote for McCain. Is Clinton holding onto her campaign because she knows there are millions of undecided voters like me who want to vote for her but would swing to McCain if Obama were the Democratic nominee?

John Dickerson: That's part of her case, yes. There have been seveal polls that show there are more voters like you than those who would vote for McCain if Clinton were elected.

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Fairfax, Va.: Have you read Lawrence O'Donnell's piece about the "Movie Ending" to the Democratic nomination? Does this thing actually go to the covention? If Clinton dropped out say after the last primary and Obama went on to lose to McCain, would Clinton still be viable in 2012?

John Dickerson: I haven't read the piece but given the twists and turns this election has taken I should think any movie ending would involve a kung fu fight, an F-15 flyover and a championship football game.

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Baltimore: Re: Clinton saying Obama can't win—as a lifelong Democrat I find this argument particularly galling. Clinton's unfavorable ratings have basically not moved throughout the campaign—half of the country is on record as despising her. Secondly, do we Democrats have such a short memory that we can't recall how John Kerry sold himself as more "electable"? We know how well that worked out.

John Dickerson: Clinton's rating have actually slipped. There are a lot of people who share your view, but given the numbers (Clinton trails in delegates, popular vote and states won) she doesn't have a lot of choices in the arguments she makes.

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Washington: Why are so many of the chattering class suggesting that Hillary should quit? Didn't they learn about all of the people who failed and failed and then succeeded

John Dickerson: Two reasons. 1: people want Obama elected. 2: those who aren't actually advocating that she drop out nevertheless are examining reasons she might be forced to before the last contest and the fact that the numbers are so against her gives ample argument for why she can't make up the deficit given the contests remaining.

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Alexandria, va.: Given Obama's weakness with white, middle-class voters and Reagan Democrats (Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan), older voters (Florida) and Latinos (Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida), where does he find the votes to reach 270 electoral votes?

John Dickerson: He finds them because in a general election he'll be up against John McCain, a different candidate on a different playing field.

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Rockville, Md.: Why not settle this at the convention? It might get the ratings up. I sense a lot of partisan forces at work here.

John Dickerson: Ratings might go up but a car carsh gets good ratings too. If it goes to the convention, Democrats worry, there it'll be a big crack-up

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Normal, Okla.: Do you see a realistic path to the nomination for Clinton? If not, why do you believe that she should stay in the race?

John Dickerson: I don't have a belief I'm expressing. It's up to her.

Is there a way she can win? Yes, the superdelegates can vote for her. Is this going to happen? It's a slim slim shot that depends on a lot of things going her way and the process by which she pulls it off could make the nomination not worth having.

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Alexandria, Va.: Can you explain the media's hostility toward the superdelegates? I fail to understand this popular idea that "superdelegates should vote in accordance with the results of the popular vote." Do people fail to understand that primary politics are not (and are not supposed to be) democratic affairs, but instead are the results of a private party deciding who its leader will be?

The time for the people's opinion is November; party primaries are for party members, and the superdelegates are longtime, devoted party members who presumably have more information than the typical uneducated (about the issues/candidates) voter at large. As an aside, my opinions on this also put me in the camp that strongly opposes open primaries. I feel that if you're going to vote for someone in a primary, you at least need to be committed sufficiently to the party to properly register.

John Dickerson: You're right on the rules, but there are lots of Democrats who don't like those rules and don't think they are fair.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Do you think it is possible for the Democratic Party to come up with a solution to assigning the Florida and Michigan delegates that would please both campaigns and pass the "smell test" (as in something smells fishy) with Democratic voters? If so, what are some possible solutions to assigning these delegates that would fulfill the criteria above?

John Dickerson: I'm not sure what solution would meet your criteria. Clinton wants the delegates now with no do-over. Obama doesn't want them seated under the "voting" that took place before and no do-over.

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Washington: Those who call for candidates to drop out of the race so to make the nominating process easier are acting inappropriately. As long as a candidate is appealing to some portion of the population and wants to keep going, they should stay in the race to let the voters who support them have their say at the polls—and prevent the appearance of a false mandate for the eventual winner.

A president who is fooled into believing that the rank-and-file of his party support him unconditionally because he had no opposition after the early primaries probably will adopt a more unilateral style than one who knows that for a significant number of his party's supporters, he was their second or third choice.

John Dickerson: Interesting notion. This is a version of the argument that Obama is actually helped by a long primary. As a reporter, anything that tests candidates is something I like, not because it gives me stories (I'd be happy to take a little rest) but because it tests them in a way I think is useful. We learn more about them and how they act under pressure which isn't a horrible way to figure out whether they can handle the big job.

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Maryland: Geez, all the talk about how there's no need for the primary to end ... how about, historically, most of us never even got to vote in a primary, as the decisions were made before it got to our states? Weren't we disenfranchised, to use Sen. Clinton's favorite word? No one cared then, they just followed the math. The Clintons will bully their way back to the White House, just watch.

John Dickerson: But in earlier primaries there wasn't a great sign that the losers in previous contests had supporters in those later states, was there?

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Detroit: It is very interesting that there were very few "when should he quit" articles abour Huckabee, but media types have been running "when should she quit" articles abour Sen. Clinton for the better part of two months. Are reporters that excited by the prospect of Sen. Obama getting the nomination?

John Dickerson: There were a few such Huckabee stories but there was less chatter among party officials that it might do any harm to the Party which gives these stories some energy on the Democratic side.

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Reston, Va.: You're the guy who asks the president all the tough questions, right? Are you going to get a chance to do that before he heads back to Crawford, or is it all presidential campaign from here on out?

John Dickerson: I'd love to talk to the president again. He has not called on me in a press conference since April 2004, so I imagine it'll have to be in person.

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John Dickerson: Okay I'm off. Thanks very much for joining me and for reading the article. I'm off to make the deadline for my next one. Thanks!