When Democrats contemplate the apocalypse these days, they have visions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton slugging it out à la Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter at the 1980 convention. The campaign's current trajectory is, in fact, alarmingly similar to the one that produced that disastrous affair. Back then, Carter had built up a delegate lead with early wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and several Southern states. But, as the primary season dragged on, Kennedy began pocketing big states and gaining momentum. Once all the voting ended and Kennedy came up short, he eyed the New York convention as a kind of Hail Mary.
Any candidate trailing at the convention must employ divisive tactics, almost by definition. For example, much of the bitterness in 1980 arose from the floor votes Kennedy engineered to drive a wedge between Carter and his delegates. At one point, Kennedy forced a vote on whether each state's delegation should be split equally between men and women. Carter counted many feminists among his delegates, but the campaign initially opposed the measure so as to deny Kennedy a victory. "You had women who were with Jimmy Carter who were crying on the floor," recalls Joe Trippi, then a young Kennedy organizer.
The Kennedy strategy worked both too well and not well enough. Kennedy won many of the floor votes thanks to Carter's unwillingness to squeeze conflicted delegates. He captivated the rank and file with his mythic "Dream shall never die" speech--a stark contrast to Carter's ham-handed rhetorical style. (In his own speech, Carter famously confused former vice president Hubert Humphrey with Horatio Hornblower, a fictional character from a British book series.) But, for all the maneuvering, the delegate tally barely budged. Kennedy won the convention's hearts and minds; Carter locked up the nomination.
One of the iconic images from that episode has the two men on a crowded stage in Madison Square Garden. Carter edges toward Kennedy expectantly, hoping for a symbolic show of unity. But Kennedy's back is turned, and he's moving in the opposite direction. Capping four days of intramural mud-wrestling, it perfectly captured the party's rift heading toward the general election. Carter himself later lamented news accounts portraying the scene as "an indication that the split in our ranks had not healed." "This accurate impression was quite damaging to our campaign," he wrote in his memoir, Keeping Faith.
As it happens, it's possible that Kennedy never intended the cold-shoulder treatment. The original idea was for Kennedy and Carter to appear alone together at the podium. But, thanks to some horrific Manhattan traffic, Kennedy didn't show up until legions of Carter supporters had flooded the stage. He may have been disoriented amid all the chaos. "To this day, I don't know that there was deliberate effort by Kennedy to snub Carter. It was just a big confusion," says Bill Carrick, one of Kennedy's floor managers. "The lesson is that, if you go into conventions, you're going to have messes. These are not manageable processes."
With little chance that either candidate this time around can clinch the nomination at the polls, it's not inconceivable that Democrats will re-enact this spectacle in Denver this August. (One direct link: Clinton operative Harold Ickes oversaw Kennedy's convention effort in 1980 and would likely oversee Hillary's.) The sequel could be even more damaging. It's true that the ideological gulf separating Kennedy and Carter doesn't divide Obama and Clinton. But, precisely because the substantive differences are so small, the temptation to court delegates along racial and gender lines would be even greater. And the sense of alienation among the losers would be overwhelming. Says former Al Gore campaign manager (and undecided superdelegate) Donna Brazile: "I don't have the 1980 experience, but that was two white men. This is a woman and a black. What's different about this fight is that, when they attack each other, supporters feel like they're attacking them personally." Remember the recent firestorm over Geraldine Ferraro's comment that, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position"? Well, imagine that flap playing out continuously over four days among hundreds of people with no other news to displace it, and you begin to see the problem.
The good news is that an ugly convention fight is highly preventable. The one advantage of a scenario that's both completely hair-raising and utterly foreseeable is that everyone has an incentive to stop it. The bad news is what's not preventable: a contest that rolls into June. Even without a messy convention, the current trajectory of the primary campaign could easily destroy the party's White House prospects.
Democrats have never been known for Spock-like rationality, but even they see the logic of avoiding a convention fiasco. "It's in nobody's interest in the Democratic Party for that to happen," says Mike Feldman, another former Gore aide. "There is a mechanism in place--built into the process--to avoid that." That mechanism, such as it is, involves an en masse movement of uncommitted superdelegates to the perceived winner of the primaries. Almost everything you hear from such people suggests this will happen in time. "I think once we have the elected delegate count, things will move fairly quickly, " says Representative Chris Van Hollen, who oversees the party's House campaign committee. Increasingly, there is even agreement on the metric by which a winner would be named. Just about every superdelegate and party operative I spoke with endorsed Nancy Pelosi's recent suggestion that pledged delegates should matter most.
Assuming Feldman and Van Hollen are right, that means Democrats won't wait much past June 3--currently the last day on the primary calendar--before crowning a nominee. At the same time, it means there's very little chance of ending the contest sooner. Undecided superdelegates on Capitol Hill, along with party elders like Pelosi, Gore, and Harry Reid, "don't want to be seen as elites coming in and overturning the will of the people," says one senior House aide. A Senate staffer says his boss "thinks this give and take is natural, it will be helpful in the end." "That's a view held by a majority of these guys who have been through the cut and thrust of politics," he adds. Which means early June it is.
The problem is that each day Clinton and Obama spend consumed with the other is a day that moves John McCain closer to the White House. McCain's biggest asset is his political brand, which evokes a straight-talking, party-bucking reformer. Among his biggest liabilities is the suspicion he inspires among conservatives thanks to these same attributes. McCain apparently plans to spend the next few months making nice with his base. But anything he accomplishes on this front clearly diminishes his swing-voter appeal and, therefore, his chances in November.
Ideally, the Democrats would be exploiting this tension like mad. They would highlight the anti-Catholic, anti-gay ravings of John Hagee, the evangelical minister whose endorsement McCain recently accepted. They would ridicule his chumminess with supply-side Neanderthals like Jack Kemp and his flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts. They'd dwell on McCain's less-noticed association with crony-capitalists during his tenure as Commerce Committee chairman.
Instead, something close to the opposite is happening. McCain's courtship of the lunatic right and his ties to K Street have largely been hidden from view, while the Democrats' dirty laundry has been aired for swing voters. The upshot for Democrats has not been good. In late February, a Gallup poll showed Obama leading McCain among independents by 15 points. By March 6, a Newsweek poll put McCain up ten points among this group--and that was before Jeremiah Wright weighed in. Hillary went from down five to down 15 among independents during the same time.
A quick look at some recent campaign coverage sheds light on why this is happening. On March 12, Ferraro and the racially polarized Mississippi primary were A-1 news in The Washington Post. It wasn't until page A-6 that you stumbled across a story about McCain's ties to the parent company of Airbus, the Boeing rival to whom the Pentagon recently handed a lucrative contract. The second story could have muddied McCain's reformist credentials, but it barely caused a ripple on cable or the blogosphere.
McCain has no doubt stumbled while trying to consolidate GOP support. He prompted some grumbling with his recent appointment of former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, a moderate Republican with little history of party activism, to head Victory '08, a key campaign committee. But there's evidence that, on balance, he's well ahead of schedule. Since Super Tuesday, three-quarters of Republicans have routinely proclaimed themselves satisfied with McCain as their nominee.
If McCain winds up facing Obama, he'll enjoy yet another advantage: a nominee weakened by attacks from a fellow Democrat. "Clinton hit a raw nerve several weeks ago when she said she had thirty-something years of experience, McCain had twenty- to thirty-something years, and Barack Obama had a speech," says Representative Artur Davis, an Obama supporter. The suggestion that Obama isn't ready to be commander-in-chief is "unusually corrosive," Davis complains. Indeed, when I asked various Republican and neutral Democratic operatives to name the most damaging twist in the primaries, most cited this same critique. "It's very good messaging--that he's not fit to be commander-in-chief," crowed one Republican strategist. "When you get the Democrats saying it, that's kind of the nuke in the whole thing." One of his Democratic counterparts was even more blunt: "It's one thing for John McCain to say [Obama's] not as muscular. It's another thing to have a girl saying it. It has some influence on swing voters."
Of course, if Obama's the nominee, he's unlikely to win a national security debate against McCain, with or without Hillary's broadsides. Obama's best bet is to focus the discussion specifically on Iraq. On the other hand, debating national security credentials during the primaries invariably alters the general-election landscape. You can now count on seeing another "3 a.m." ad sometime this fall--not to mention a "3 a.m." debate question from Tim Russert, and a shadowy, "3 a.m."-obsessed 527 group. ("Insomniac Prank-Callers For Truth"?) "I do believe the winner of the 3 a.m. ad is John McCain," says Kevin Madden, a former aide to Mitt Romney. "It's like an NCAA bracket. She may get the play-in game [against Obama], but she'd lose that in the championship game."
And there will surely be more body blows to come. Ad hominem attacks are an almost necessary feature of an unusually long campaign in which policy differences are minimal. At a certain point, there's just no other way to get traction against your opponent. That's one reason Pelosi has informally spoken with colleagues about stepping in if the tone abruptly deteriorates. But there's a catch-22 involved here: Party elders won't forcefully intervene unless an attack does serious damage. But, by then, the damage will have already been done.
Worse, any missile that hits its target would also destroy the person who launched it. Given the delegate math, Hillary's only path to the nomination, barring a meltdown by Obama, is to destroy his electability. But harsh attacks on Obama will inevitably discourage African Americans from voting in the fall, and Hillary can't beat McCain without strong black turnout in places like Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Conversely, any attack on Hillary that alienated moderate Republican women could cripple Obama's chances.
Opinion journalists have a time-honored technique for dealing with news they don't like: Keep making phone calls. In my case, this yielded a depressingly meager haul. The most optimistic scenario I could plausibly construct didn't end the campaign until the second week in May. To make it happen, Obama would have to overtake Hillary among superdelegates--a key psychological barrier. He'd have to limit his margin of defeat in Pennsylvania to ten points, then hold serve two weeks later in North Carolina and Indiana, a pair of states he's slightly favored to win. At that point, Hillary would face nearly impossible odds of overtaking him in the delegate race.
Unfortunately for anyone who wants the race to end soon, there are several problems with this scenario. For one thing, even if all this comes to pass, Hillary would still have to bow out voluntarily--an unlikely twist in any event, but highly implausible if the limbo states of Florida and Michigan still offer her hope. Meanwhile, any one of the aforementioned steps could easily fall through. Polls currently show Obama trailing by double digits in Pennsylvania; the good Reverend Wright could make that tough to change. And, though Obama now leads in North Carolina and Indiana, his advantage is either small or, in the latter case, based on a single, flimsy poll. As for superdelegates, as of this writing, the last two out of the closet opted for Hillary.
So, to review: The most optimistic scenario we have relies on a highly tenuous assumption; it's unlikely to happen even if that assumption holds; and, regardless, it allows the Democratic contest to drag on for six more brutal weeks. The dream may never die, but it's seen some better days.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.