The greatest comeback in presidential primary election history fell just short of success. Ronald Reagan, doing his party no favors, decided to challenge the unelected incumbent president, Gerald Ford, for the 1976 GOP nomination. Reagan, who would later be known, ironically, for his 11th Commandment ("Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican"), attacked Ford as a feckless moderate, unable to stand up to a Democratic Congress and too weak and compromised to pursue an aggressive anti-Communist foreign policy. The president, who had pardoned his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon, and had overseen the country's humiliating final defeat in Vietnam, was understood to be in deep trouble.
Ford, however, began the primary season with a string of victories, including a narrow win in New Hampshire, then a rock-ribbed conservative state that was assumed by many to be Reagan country. His campaign faltering and in danger of extinction, the Gipper rebounded in North Carolina and Texas, defeated Ford in the winner-take-all primary in his home state of California, and entered the Republican convention that summer in a virtual dead heat with the President of the United States. Nobody before or since has engineered such an improbable comeback so deep into the primary election calendar.
Nevertheless, Reagan ultimately lost the nomination to his rival. Ford barely maintained his slight lead in the delegate count and won just enough of the uncommitted participants to secure a date with Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter in November. Oddly enough, the fall campaign would see its own unlikely, but ultimately unsuccessful, comeback, as Ford closed a double-digit gap in the polls to come within an eyelash of passing Carter on Election Day and securing the presidency in his own right.
Hillary Clinton now stands where Ronald Reagan did at roughly this time 32 years ago. There are differences, of course. Senator Clinton is not charged with the Herculean task of upending an incumbent president. On the other hand, she does not enjoy perhaps the most important weapon Reagan possessed in his battle against Ford: the winner-take-all primary. Without his ability to acquire all the delegates from such vote-rich states as California and Texas, the Gipper would have come to the GOP convention in Kansas City with almost no chance of success.
Still, for all the noise about Barack Obama's newfound inevitability and his uninterrupted string of victories since Super Tuesday, Clinton remains only 142 elected delegates behind her opponent. If Super Delegate commitments are factored in, Obama's lead shrinks to just 69. While the Democrats' proportional system of assigning delegates will likely prevent Clinton from overtaking Obama with victories in the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas, she can still narrow the gap in a meaningful way.
But even with wins in the remaining Big Three states (Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania), it is unlikely that Hillary Clinton can grab a lead in the delegate count prior to the August Democratic National Convention in Denver. Mississippi and North Carolina still loom on the schedule, and Obama will almost certainly continue his mastery of open southern primaries. Caucuses in Wyoming and Puerto Rico also play to Obama's strength.
So how does Hillary Clinton come to Denver with anything approaching a plausible argument for her nomination? Clearly, at this point her success will depend on beating Obama among the Super Delegates, a risky strategy. The media, with generous assistance from the Obama camp, has convinced most Americans that there is something inappropriate and unfair about Super Delegates voting their preferences without regard to the results of the primaries and caucuses. Should these party officials and Democratic officeholders make Clinton the nominee, despite a pre-convention delegate lead by Obama, expect an outcry from the anti-Hillary zealots in the punditocracy and from such influential liberal websites as Daily Kos, which has all but transformed into an unofficial wing of the Barack Obama for President campaign.
Clearly, then, Senator Clinton can either quit the race today or she can begin to craft a persuasive argument in her favor. This argument must break through the unsophisticated, but seductive, notion that only elected delegates should decide the outcome of the Democratic nomination process. Even if she plays by the rules, many media types and most Obamaphiles in the blogosphere will insist that the nomination was stolen from "the people", as though primary voters, much less caucus-goers, are representative of the overall Democratic electorate. Nevertheless, even specious arguments must be answered.
Thus, for Hillary Clinton to achieve at least a relatively untainted victory in a brokered convention, there are two pre-conditions that must be met:
1. She must win nearly all the primaries remaining on the calendar. At the very least, she must take, in addition to the Big Three, six of the ten non-caucuses held between now and June 7. In reality, she probably has to capture all but Mississippi, North Carolina, and Vermont. This is tough, but doable. To some extent, we'll know just how possible it is ten days from now. Without victories in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island, Hillary is finished.
2. Senator Clinton must win a plurality of the overall, nationwide vote cast for the Democratic nomination in 2008, including caucuses. If she can come to the convention as the candidate who has been chosen by the largest number of her fellow citizens (including those in Florida and Michigan), she can argue that she, rather than her opponent, is the true people's choice. At that point, Barack Obama would find himself in the uncomfortable position of insisting that states won and delegates secured should count for more than the expressed will of the electorate. An easy comparison could be drawn to George W. Bush's victory over Al Gore in 2000, in which the arcane technicalities of the Electoral College trumped the one person-one vote logic of popular democracy.
Even if she meets these preconditions, she will still need to craft an argument that will persuade the majority of Super Delegates to support her on the convention floor. The key, obviously, is to convince these party professionals that she is the more electable of the two remaining candidates. She must first insist that her primary wins are more indicative of electoral viability than Obama's more numerous victories in the highly unrepresentative party caucuses. Second, she must argue that a substantial part of her rival's support comes from states in the South and Great Plains that Democrats have no hope of winning in November. Finally, she must find a way to explain how Senator Obama's victories in the Connecticut, Missouri, and Wisconsin primaries don't undermine the first two points.
Let's face it: we're talking about a longshot here. Hillary Clinton knows this better than anyone. It may all be a moot point by St. Patrick's Day. But it is not impossible, as Ronald Reagan taught us back in the early days of disco. In a year marked by so many surprises, maybe there's one more in store for us.
Or maybe not.