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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Late Primary Challenges: Not Unprecedented

I’m probably a bit too inclined to criticize political writers who don’t seem to know a lot of political history. Sometimes it’s very relevant, but sometimes not so much: history does get made with each new electoral cycle.
But when a political writer makes a historical claim that’s, well, just not accurate, that’s another whole thing. In a new piece in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert pens a familiar complaint that Hillary Clinton’s extended challenge to Barack Obama is selfishlessly destructive. But she bases that judgment not just on HRC’s slim prospects for victory, but on the the idea that this kind of late challenge is unprecedented in its defiance of the natural process that quickly crowns front-runners:

Presidential-primary races tend to proceed along self-reflexive lines. The candidate who is ahead—or who is perceived to be—receives more press coverage. He collects more contributions and endorsements, and these generate still more media attention, which brings in more money, more votes, and so on. Meanwhile, his opponents find that they cannot pay their staffs, or afford to hire a bus, or attract more than a clutch of peevish reporters to their news conferences. Hoping to make it onto the short list for Vice-President, the laggards throw their support to the front-runner, and the contest comes to an abrupt, if not necessarily satisfying, close.
Hillary Clinton is perhaps the first candidate in primary history to run this process in reverse. The longer the race has gone on, the lower the odds have become that she will finish the season leading either in the popular vote or in elected delegates…. Nevertheless, rather than growing weaker, she seems to have become more formidable.

You don’t have to go back to the Whigs to assess Kolbert’s assertion that HRC is the “first candidate in primary history” to mount a late, apparently hopeless challenge. The primary-dominated nominating process began in 1972 on the Democratic side, and arguably in 1976 on the Republican side. During that relatively brief period, late primary challenges to the virtually assured nominee occurred among Democrats in 1976, 1980, and 1984, and among Republicans in 1976 and 1980. While the 1976 Democratic challenges by Frank Church and Jerry Brown, and the 1980 Republican challenge by George H.W. Bush, produced mixed results, Reagan ’76, Kennedy ’80, and Hart ’84 represented powerful late-season campaigns that threatened to deny the nomination to the overwhelming front-runner. Kennedy and Hart won particularly impressive late-primary sweeps. And in 1984, the currently notorious Democratic superdelegates made news for the first and last time prior to this year by nailing down Walter Mondale’s nomination in the teeth of a late-primary Hart gale-force wind.
It’s true that none of these late challenges succeeded, and that all of the eventual nominees (other than the slightly threatened Ronald Reagan of 1980) lost the general election. So make what you want of the implications of HRC’s current challenge. But she’s not the first to launch one.

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