Lost in the uproar over Sen. Hillary Clinton’s invoking of the assassination of Robert Kennedy when explaining why her staying in the race won’t hurt party unity is an actual examination of her comparison of the 2008 Democratic primary season to the one from 1968.
Clinton yesterday before the Argus Leader editorial board also invoked her husband’s race in 1992. We’ve already twice now looked at how her reference to how her husband was still campaigning in June 1992 is a disingenuous claim.
All serious competition to Bill Clinton had dropped out in March 1992, and party leaders began rallying around him in April.
Yes, he literally did not secure the nomination until June 1992, but by then it was a foregone conclusion that he would be the nominee. Serious competitors — Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, then-Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass — had done the math and dropped out.
Moreover, the timeline doesn’t square because the first real contest in 1992 was the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 18. (No one competed in Iowa because Harkin was so favored.) This year’s contests began on Jan. 3, 2008. Meaning this race started earlier than ever. Bill Clinton competing in June then is more like her competing in April today.
And that makes the 1968 analogy all the more inapt. Because the first contest that year, the New Hampshire primary, was on March 12, 1964.
Meaning, the fact that it was still going on in June then would be like this year’s race still going on in March.
But that doesn’t even really begin to explain how the 1968 comparison is ludicrous.
Back then, only 13 states even held primaries — the party bosses in most states controlled the delegates.
That’s why it was possible for the 1968 Democratic presidential nominee — then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey — to have secured the nomination after having won exactly ZERO primaries.
To recap, then-President Lyndon Johnson won the New Hampshire primary in 1968 with 49 percent of the vote, with then-Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn, having secured a strong second place finish with 42 percent of the vote.
Then-Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y., announced his candidacy on March 16. On March 31, Johnson gave his famous address to the nation, announcing, "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
But delegates allocated by primary victory were not as important back then.
McCarthy won Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Kennedy won Indiana, Nebraska and South Dakota, and was assassinated on June 5, right after winning the California contest over McCarthy, 46 percent to 42 percent.
Meanwhile, Vice President Humphrey was focused on winning the delegates in states where they were in the pocket of party bosses (which was most of them). Though McCarthy won the Pennsylvania primary, for instance with 72 percent, the man who ran the Democratic Party at the time, Mayor James Tate of Philadelphia, made sure Humphrey – who was not even on the ballot — got most of the delegates.
What might have been is open to debate, but there are plenty of historians who feel that Humphrey would have secured the nomination in 1968 even if RFK had walked out of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles that horrible night. He had the institutional control, and the support of people such as Mayor Tate of Philadelphia and Mayor Richard Daley Sr. in Chicago.
As Evan Thomas wrote in “Robert Kennedy: His Life,” RFK aide "Larry O’Brien, a true pragmatist and the most reliable delegate counter, had told Kennedy that winning the nomination would be an uphill struggle. While Kennedy had been getting his cuff links torn off in close primary battles in mostly small states, Humphrey had been methodically lining up delegates in big states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — enough to secure the nomination, unless Kennedy could somehow shake them free."
(Subsequent reforms to the Democratic primary process put power in the hands of the voters. It should be noted that this led to the disastrous 1972 candidacy of Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D.)
But even beyond the clear inappropriateness of the 1968 timeline analogy is the context in which Clinton was citing it. That is, in a discussion about why the continued primary season would not hurt party unity. Because 1968, after all, was also the year of one of the most divisive and ugly Democratic conventions in history.
And needless to say, the victor that year was the Republican.
Clinton went on in that same editorial board meeting with the Argus Leader to say "I have, perhaps, a long enough memory that many people who finished a rather distant second behind nominees go all the way to the convention. I remember very well 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, where some who had contested in the primaries, you know, were determined to carry their case to the convention."
Let’s review: 1980 — Republican wins; 1984 — Republican wins; 1988 — Republican wins; 1992 — Democrat wins; but doesn’t reach 50 percent of the vote and is only victorious, in all likelihood, because of the third-party candidacy of H. Ross Perot.*
As far as the Democratic Party rules go, Clinton has every right to stay in the race as long as she wants.
She is narrowly behind Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, and though the delegate math is strongly against her — she has to win something like 80 percent of the remaining delegates, while Obama has to win something like 20 percent of them — there’s nothing within the rules that says she has to drop out.
She doesn’t even need to concede when and if Obama ever wins the number of delegates required to win the nomination, which currently stands at 2,026 but will likely change in a week after the Democratic National Committee’s rules and bylaws committee resolves what to do about Michigan and Florida.
She can take her delegates all the way to the Democratic convention in Denver this August.
She has every right to do so. It might not be what’s best for the party, for the party’s eventual nominee, and even for herself, ultimately, but she has every right to do so.
That said, history is history, and Sen. Clinton has been rather clumsily using it to justify her continued candidacy, a candidacy that should be able to rise or fall on its own merits.
* ABC News Polling Director Gary Langer takes issue with this assertion, saying that 1992 exit poll data inducates that among Perot voters, 38 percent said that if he had not been in the race they’d have voted for then-Gov.Bill Clinton, 37 percent said they’d have voted for then-Presidnt George H.W. Bush, while the rest would have stayed home or voted for someone else. The Democrats worked hard to bolster Perot’s candidacy in 1996, however — insisting that he be included in the debates — so it seems to me that Clintonistas, at least, might not trust that exit poll data.