Reality Check: The Hart-Mondale Analogy

The first of four posts in which Stumper reality-checks the Democratic contest. Stay tuned for Wisconsin later today and Texas and Ohio over the weekend.

The Comparison
Since the start of the 2008 campaign--it feels like eons ago, doesn't it?--pundits have compared the Clinton-Obama contest to an earlier Democratic nomination battle: 1984's match up between Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. The similarities were initially superficial. Clinton, like Mondale, entered the race as the well-oiled, well-funded choice of the party establishment, while the younger, looser Obama echoed Hart's call for a new generation of leadership. But now that neither candidate looks likely to win the 2,025 pledged delegates needed to clinch the nod before the last primary in June, the climax of the 2008 campaign may also mirror 1984--with the power players known as superdelegates deciding the outcome.

Why It Works
In both cases, an inspiring, Kennedy-esque upstart shocks the political establishment by trouncing an older, stodgier Senator--who, incidentally, spent some time in the White House--in most of the states up for grabs. (Hart won 28 to Mondale's 24; at press time, Obama has won 20, Clinton 12.) But thanks to proportional allocation of delegates and the fact that most of those victories are in small states, the insurgent is unable to secure a majority--meaning that the superdelegates, who tend to favor the establishment candidate, must step in and break the logjam.

Why It Doesn't Work

Even though Hart beat Mondale 26-22 in the first 48 contests--including a sweep of five straight contests in mid-May--he was still trailing the former veep 1,564 delegates to 941 at the end of month. So their grand finale wasn't exactly a nailbiter. Mondale won New Jersey on June 5, which put him within 40 delegates of a majority; by midnight the next day, he'd swayed enough superdelegates to sew up the nomination. Hart kept running, but it was a lost cause. In contrast, Obama leads Clinton by only about 130 delegates at this point. If that margin stays the same, superdelegates will eventually be forced to choose between an establishment candidate who (barely) lost the delegate battle and an upstart who (barely) won. It'll make 1984 look like a cakewalk.

The better comparison, in fact, may be Gerald Ford (the White House habitue) vs. Ronald Reagan (the inspiring insurgent) in 1976. Despite early losses, Reagan dominated the second half of primary season and wound up tied with Ford after winning California on June 8. So the battle continued through the convention. Reagan and Ford spent the next two months personally wooing superdelegates--much as Clinton and Obama would do, were the race still undecided come summer. By the time the candidates arrived in Kansas City in August, Ford had a slight edge, but was still shy of the 1130 needed for a majority--and only clinched the nod after a bit of wheeling and dealing. The final count: 1187-1070. Coincidentally, that's almost precisely the gap that now separates Clinton and Obama.