BY WHAT HISTORICAL STANDARD IS OBAMA THE FRONTRUNNER?
Obviously, Violet and I are of the same generation. We learned the same political lessons:
One of the first political facts I learned was this: winning the California primary in June 1968 meant Robert Kennedy had a serious shot at taking the nomination, even though he’d entered the race late and was behind in delegates.
But of course Bobby was murdered a few hours later, so that was the end of that.
I learned about this as a child because my parents were trying to explain to me why another Kennedy had been killed and what it meant for the election.
“Why did California matter so much?” I asked them. “How could he have gotten the nomination if Humphrey already had the party behind him? And what about McCarthy?”
It was thus that I learned about the realpolitik of nominating contests. A lot has changed in the process since 1968, and all to the good. More actual voting, fewer smoke-filled rooms. But what hasn’t changed is the purpose of the whole thing: to settle on the candidate with the best chance to win in the general election.
If I had a time machine and could go back to 1968 or 1972 to chew over a thought experiment with one of those old pros, the conversation might go like this:
Violet: Okay, hypothetical situation. Let’s say we’ve got two strong candidates. Candidate A wins the Iowa caucus. Candidate B wins New Hampshire. Then Candidate A catches fire and in February wins a bunch of caucuses and small primaries in mostly Republican states. Racks up the lead in delegates. But then Candidate B comes roaring back and wins New York, California, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey, Texas, Pennsylvania. Who’s the front-runner?
Old Pro from 1968/72: Are you kidding me?
Violet: No, really — who’s the front runner?
Old Pro: Candidate B, of course. What’s the matter with you?
Violet: But Candidate A leads in pledged delegates!
Old Pro: Candidate A is the guy who had a good February? But then loses in all the big states?
Old Pro: You’re actually asking me this question?
Violet: But don’t the pledged delegates count?
Old Pro: You’re talking about nominating the guy who lost New York, California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and Florida? Jesus! You’re outta your mind!
Violet: But what about his delegates?
Old Pro: Fight it out at the convention if you have to. Geez. That’s what conventions are for. Look, you don’t get to be the nominee because you were popular in February in Utah. For chrissake, if you can’t win the Democratic primaries in California or New York or Massachusetts or Florida or Texas or Ohio or Pennsylvania, you don’t get to be the Democratic nominee. Unless you’re Hubert Humphrey. Wait a minute, Humphrey isn’t still alive, is he?
Violet: No. But the party bosses really love Candidate A. They say Candidate B needs to drop out so Candidate A can be the nominee.
Old Pro: They want the winner of all the big states to drop out so the party favorite from February can be the nominee? Goddamnit, it is Humphrey, isn’t it? Christ, he must be like 100 now.
Violet: No, he’s dead. See, the two candidates we’ve got are both strong. They both have a lot of devoted supporters and they’re really close in pledged delegates and popular votes.
Old Pro: What do their numbers look like against the Republican?
Violet: Close, though when you look at the state-by-state polls and the exit data, Candidate B looks stronger in a match-up against the Republican than Candidate A.
Old Pro: And you’re still asking me who the party needs to nominate?
Violet: Well, the supporters of Candidate A say that if Candidate B will just drop out, then the party will be able to get behind Candidate A.
Old Pro: It is Humphrey!
And so on.
Look, I’m not ignoring the fact that Obama has fervent support. I’m just trying to get at the sheer freak factor of the insistence that he is the de facto nominee, even after losing all the big states. I’m too old and my head is too full of memories for me not to recognize the surpassing strangeness of it.