About this Blog
About The Author
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« On the Iowa Results | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | Clinton's Plan B »

Is 1992 the Model?

With Hillary Clinton's loss in Iowa, and her polling troubles in New Hampshire - her campaign has been spinning that she will soon be the new "Comeback Kid." Like her husband, she will eventually overcome early defeats to win her party's nomination. Bill Clinton himself has noted to several reporters that he did not win his first contest in 1992 until Georgia, which was held a month after Iowa.

So, the implication is that if Bill could lose early contests and bounce back, Hillary could, too.

From a certain perspective, I think this conclusion is indisputable. I do not believe this race is over - and I say that as somebody who predicted that Obama would be a real threat to Hillary a while ago. Here's my bottom line on the Dem race: Clinton has the money, the prestige, and the support to stay in the race through at least Super Tuesday, even if she loses all of the early contests. She also has, at least according to the latest national polls, much of the traditional voting coalition that has won her party's nomination in year's past. And remember - most Democratic primaries allocate delegates to the national convention proportionally, which means that losers still win delegates. So, Clinton could stay a close second through most of the season, and surge late to win the nomination. Of course, losses in Iowa and New Hampshire would seriously damage her campaign. No candidate who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has ever failed to win his party's nomination in the modern era.* However, as I have argued many times, history is a limited guide for us when it comes to party nominations. Hillary remains a candidate with real strengths - and she should not be underestimated.

My quibble here is using 1992 as a model for Hillary, which is exactly what her husband and other surrogates have floated. There are two important problems.

Before we get into them, let's review the calendar of events from the 1992 Democratic primaries. As you might remember, Bill was the big polling leader heading into the fourth quarter of 1991. However, the "character issue" seriously damaged his numbers, threw the race into the air, and induced Bill and Hillary to appear on 60 Minutes after the Super Bowl. So, here is how the events went down subsequent to that:

February 10, 1992: Iowa senator Tom Harkin wins his state's caucus. No surprise here. No candidate was challenging him.

February 18, 1992: Former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas wins New Hampshire. Clinton finishes second and brands himself the "comeback kid."

February 25, 1992: Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey wins South Dakota.

March 3, 1992: Mini-Super Tuesday. Clinton wins Georgia. Former California governor Jerry Brown wins Colorado. Tsongas wins Maryland. Harkin wins the Minnesota and Idaho caucuses.

March 7, 1992: Clinton wins South Carolina.

March 10, 1992: Super Tuesday. Clinton wins six southern states: Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas. Tsongas wins Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

March 17, 1992: Clinton essentially ends the contest with a win in Illinois (though Brown would briefly reemerge with a victory in Connecticut one week later).

So, what did it for Clinton? The South! The South dominated Super Tuesday, which was the reason why it was created. Super Tuesday was designed by southern Democrats after Mondale's nomination in 1984. They wanted to use their weight to nominate a more moderate candidate who would better reflect their interests. The plan backfired in 1988, as Al Gore and Jesse Jackson effectively neutralized one another, and Michael Dukakis won the nomination. But the plan succeeded in 1992 - as Bill Clinton lost seven of the first nine contests, but still won the nomination.

This points out a critical difference between Bill and Hillary. Bill won the nomination when the battle came to his home turf. The South was Clinton's firewall in 1992. It was going to get behind Bill almost regardless of where he finished in the previous contests. Hillary has no firewall that is based upon regional affinity. Of course, she is currently strong in many of this year's Super Tuesday states - California, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. However, she is not a favorite daughter. These states are not nearly as dependable for her as Tennessee, Mississippi, and South Carolina were for Bill.

Another critical difference can be noted when we look at the results of the early contests. Of the contests prior to Super Tuesday, they were split five ways: Harkin, Kerrey, Tsongas, Brown, and Clinton all won at least one contest before March 10. There was no significant consolidation of the race because the early states kept disagreeing with one another. This helped Bill. He could lose and lose and lose because no single opponent won and won and won. Hillary does not enjoy this kind of advantage. The 2008 Democratic contest is between Clinton and Obama. So, if she loses seven of the first eight contests contests, Obama wins seven of the first eight. This would create a dramatically different dynamic than in 1992.

Thus, we see here two of Clinton's relative weaknesses as a frontrunner. She has no firewall that stems from her geographical roots. She also does not have the luxury of multiple opponents.

If the 1992 Democratic contest has a parallel with this year, it is on the Republican side. And Rudy Giuliani may be Bill Clinton. Like Clinton in 1992, Giuliani's field has multiple viable candidates. Also like Clinton, he has a natural constituency upon which he might draw. Obviously, he is not from Florida - but a lot of Floridians are former New Yorkers. This gives him a real advantage in the Sunshine State. Also, several of Rudy's best states are holding their primaries on Super Tuesday: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts.

Of course, the parallels do not hold terribly well. First, Clinton placed a strong second in New Hampshire. Giuliani is unlikely to do that. This could damage him - especially if he drops behind Huckabee or even Paul. Second, this year's Super Tuesday includes seventeen states where Giuliani cannot be said to have a natural constituency. There are a lot of moderate states, for sure, but we are talking about regional affinity here. Third, you could argue that the South is much more loyal to its sons than the northeast is. I cannot imagine Louisiana voting for anybody but Bill Clinton in 1992. I could definitely see Connecticut and Massachusetts going for McCain - just like they did in 2000. All in all, while 1992 should give Rudy some comfort, it is not a tight fit with his current position.

As for Hillary Clinton - she is far from finished, even if she loses New Hampshire. But her husband's come-from-behind win in 1992 cannot be her model. Her husband had advantages that she simply lacks.

*. Update, 3:30 PM: A reader points out that Edmund Muskie won New Hampshire in 1972, and was the highest vote-getter in the Iowa caucus. In light of this observation, I have amended the above sentence to include the phrase "in the modern era." The modern era in the presidential nominating contest is usually said to have begun in 1976 - which is the first year that primaries and caucuses dominated both party contests. I apologize for the vagueness in my original piece.

-Jay Cost