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History, not all the facts, is on Clinton's side

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks with the Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus Leader Editorial Board on Friday.

Associated Press | The Argus Leader, Lara Neel

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks with the Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus Leader Editorial Board on Friday.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has had to answer questions about why she's staying in the race for the Democratic nomination for president when Sen. Barack Obama has an insurmountable lead. One of her arguments is that history shows nomination races can take a long time.

"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California," she said May 23 in an interview with the editorial board of the Argus Leader, the newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Her remarks ignited a small furor because some people thought she was implying that Obama might be assassinated. The Clinton campaign strongly disputed that interpretation, and Clinton herself apologized.

The context shows Clinton making an argument she has made before, that it's not unusual for nomination races to take a long time.

We looked into the history of these two races, though, and found important differences between then and now.

In 1992, Bill Clinton lost early contests to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas and former California Gov. Jerry Brown. But he came back and swept the Southern states on Super Tuesday — March 10 compared to Feb. 5 this year — then took Michigan and Illinois on March 17 for a decisive victory. The late March primaries left him with 942 delegates, a commanding lead over his closest opponent, Tsongas, who suspended his campaign that week.

Hillary Clinton is technically right that it wasn't until the June 2 primaries that Bill Clinton clinched the nomination. But after March, he had no serious rival and there was little doubt he would be the nominee.

Her analogy to the 1968 race doesn't hold up any better.

President Lyndon Johnson was widely expected to seek another term that year. But dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War prompted Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to declare. McCarthy exceeded expectations when he took 41.9 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, compared with Johnson's 49.6 percent.

With Johnson's vulnerability revealed, Kennedy entered the race. Johnson then surprised everyone by withdrawing on March 31.

Kennedy seemed to be outpacing McCarthy, but lost to him in Oregon on May 28. The California primary on June 4 was widely seen as a crucial turning point. Kennedy won the primary, but was assassinated shortly after midnight on June 5 by Sirhan Sirhan. Ultimately, Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, secured the nomination at a chaotic convention in Chicago that August, then lost to Republican Richard Nixon.

So, the 1968 race didn't start in earnest until the end of March, after the sitting president announced he wouldn't seek re-election. Compare that to this cycle, when the field of candidates was largely settled nearly a year before the first primary vote in January 2008.

So Clinton is right that the 1968 contest was still going on in June that year, and it was still competitive. But she ignores important facts that make her comparison between that election and this one inaccurate.

The best example of an extended nominating process is arguably 1988, when Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts, won the Democratic nomination. The New Hampshire primary was Feb. 16, Dukakis was considered the likely winner by May, and he secured the nomination in June. That year, Jesse Jackson was the challenger who refused to drop out, citing the need to represent progressive social policies at the convention. Dukakis went on to lose to George Bush in the general election.

That example doesn't bode well for Democrats, though, a likely reason Clinton hasn't mentioned it.

The statement

"My husband didn't wrap up the nomination until June."

Hillary Clinton, March 24, in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News editorial board

The ruling

Yes, June is when he collected enough delegates, but Bill Clinton had built an insurmountable lead and all his major rivals had dropped out by March.

The statement

It doesn't make sense "historically" to drop out because the 1968 race was still competitive when "Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."

Hillary Clinton, May 23, in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The ruling

The 1968 contest was still competitive in June, but Clinton ignores the fact that primary voting didn't start that year until mid March. Compare that to this year, when Iowa voted on Jan. 3.

History, not all the facts, is on Clinton's side 05/27/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 28, 2008 5:04pm]
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