The 2016 Democratic primary has changed since late 2014. No longer is it a mere coronation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Instead, it is shaping up to be at least a minor scuffle, if not an honest-to-goodness fight. The overwhelming favorite, Clinton, has been wounded by her questionable record-keeping practices, and is suddenly in a tight race with liberal champion Bernie Sanders in the early primary state of New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden, while officially staying out of the race, could pick up the establishment torch should Hillary’s campaign implode. It may not be the spectacular road show the Republican campaign has become, but it’s at least a strong opening act.
This narrative cannot help but recall memories of the 1968 Democratic primaries, one of the most interesting contests of 20th century politics. That campaign also featured a towering yet flawed front-runner: incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson (who at 6’4’’ was literally towering). Johnson, who assumed the presidency in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, had presided over an administration of historic highs and remarkable lows. His domestic policy record included passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicaid, Medicare, and the Great Society programs. Any one of these accomplishments would have defined a presidential legacy, and Johnson achieved them all in three years. On the other hand, Johnson had organized the massive escalation of the U.S military presence in Vietnam. By 1968, U.S involvement in Vietnam was already anathema to the American left, and liberals placed the blame on Johnson’s shoulders.
1968 also featured an underdog that the establishment failed to take seriously. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota played the Bernie Sanders role that year, invigorating a coalition of liberals and young people against the war, and, by proxy, Johnson. McCarthy’s candidacy seemed quixotic at first, like Sanders’s, but quickly grew into a threat to the president.
Finally, the 1968 contest included sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Though he never formally entered a primary, Humphrey’s shadow hung over the 1968 field. Prior to being vice president, Humphrey had a long and distinguished career in the Senate, and was considered “electable” by the Democratic establishment. In that sense, Humphrey was the forerunner of Joe Biden.
While there are limits to this analogy (for instance, there is no modern equivalent to Robert Kennedy — sorry Martin O’Malley), the Democratic primary of 1968 could potentially offer insight into the 2016 campaign. So, without further ado, here are three important lessons from 1968.
1. The party establishment can make life miserable for an insurgent.
In the New Hampshire primary of 1968, Eugene McCarthy shocked the party elites by winning 42 percent of the vote against Lyndon Johnson. Just as Bernie Sanders hopes to do today, McCarthy pulled off this surprise because of the heavy engagement of grassroots activists and young voters. His near-victory cowed President Johnson, who sensed he would fail to rally his own party around a reelection campaign. Later that month, in a sober television address, President Johnson announced that he would not seek another term in office.
McCarthy’s success may have pushed President Johnson out of the race, but it did not curry favor among the party establishment. The party’s decision makers, such as Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, thought it impossible for a peacenik like McCarthy to win over the American people. They desperately searched for an alternative, and they found one in Senator Robert Kennedy. Kennedy’s tragic death, however, destroyed any hope of serious competition for McCarthy in the primaries. Coming into the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, McCarthy had secured the most primary victories of any candidate, and was the popular choice for nominee among grassroots Democrats. The Democratic establishment had other plans, however, and in some proverbial smoke-filled backroom, they decided that Vice President Humphrey would be their standard bearer.
To be sure, 2016 is not 1968. These days, primary elections bind delegates to candidates, so party elites cannot brazenly steal a nomination won by an insurgent. Nevertheless, the establishment has a wide range of tactics at its disposal to slow Bernie Sanders’s run to the nomination. First, establishment figures hold endorsement power. Every Democratic elite, from Harry Reid to Nancy Pelosi, can significantly impact a primary with a well-timed endorsement. Such endorsements convey legitimacy, but are also useful fundraising and organizing tools. Thus far, more than half of sitting Democratic senators have endorsed Hillary Clinton, and even Sanders’s senior home-state colleague Patrick Leahy won’t go to the mat for him. This could impede Sanders’s chance for victory.
Perhaps more importantly, Democratic elites can materially affect the nominating process through their status as “superdelegates.” At the Democratic National Convention, some sitting office holders, such as senators, congresspeople, and governors, get to act as unpledged delegates and vote for whomever they please as the Democratic Party’s nominee. Together, these superdelegates constitute an important minority of those voting for the nominee. Should they all choose to vote for a single candidate, they can give said candidate a significant boost. As of now, most super-delegates who have discussed their positions have made it clear that they do not favor Sanders. Such opposition could potentially cost him the nomination.
2. The designated “savior” can enter the race late under the right conditions.
Hubert Humphrey famously did not enter a single primary in 1968 before becoming the Democratic Party nominee. This led to the perception that Humphrey’s selection was undemocratic, spurring the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and eventually the changes to the Democratic nominating process. Nevertheless, party leaders felt that the vice president’s late entry was acceptable, particularly because the Party seemed out of other options.
As previously mentioned, it is far more difficult for party leaders to simply “broker” a convention in the present day. Nevertheless, a candidate with a strong resume and “electability” can still win despite getting in late (or in the case of Biden, not at all). The aforementioned superdelegates compose 15 percent of the Convention electorate, and can tilt the playing field in favor of an “establishment” candidate. Should Hillary somehow fall under indictment for some breach of State Department protocol, or falter in the face of competition from Bernie, party elites wouldn’t hesitate to draft a party stalwart like Biden. Indeed, during his Rose Garden speech in which he officially declined to run, Biden declared “while I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent.” It seems obvious that, given his enduring desire to be president, Biden would accept the party’s nomination if called to action. It was a lack of time, rather than ambition, which persuaded Biden not to enter the race, and his presence will most definitely be felt throughout the primary.
3. In years like this one, there is no such thing as a “perfect” nominee
Sometimes, a party’s nominee for president is obvious. Al Gore was the consensus choice for the Democrats in 2000, and George H.W Bush was the natural successor to Ronald Reagan in 1988. More often, though, a party struggles to pick a standard bearer after eight consecutive years in the White House. It happened to the Republicans in 1976, when they couldn’t make up their minds between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. It happened for the Democrats in 1968, in the unforgettable battle between Johnson, McCarthy, Kennedy, and Humphrey. And it’s happening again today as the Democrats try to find a worthy successor to Barack Obama.
While an experienced and able public servant, Hillary is a flawed campaigner. Her speeches lack the lyricism of Obama’s, and she possesses none of her husband’s skill as a retail politician. A majority of Americans do not think she is trustworthy, and she can come across to some as imperious, scripted, entitled, and/or arrogant. But none of this may matter if she can reassemble the rainbow coalition that carried Barack Obama to victory. The Electoral College appears to favor Democrats at the moment, and Hillary is still the odds-on favorite to be sitting in the oval office come January 20, 2017. However, it can’t be said that she is anything close to a perfect nominee.
Sanders, meanwhile, is further from the ideal general election candidate. His “Medicare for all, free public college, and social justice” platform makes liberal hearts (like my own) sing. However, as Anderson Cooper noted in the first Democratic Primary debate, the attack ads against him write themselves. While younger Americans never inherited the Cold War mentality, socialism is still a dirty word for members of the older generations, and its sting is hardly made less potent by the addition of the “democratic” qualifier. His policy proposals are easily dismissed, justly or not, as unfeasible, and his obvious disgust for large accumulations of wealth guarantees that he would be vastly outspent in a general election. Bernie’s message is an inspiration for many, but a perfect candidate he, too, is not.
The non-candidate, Biden, has his own share of issues. The first is his age. Although Bernie Sanders is actually a year older, Biden would appear to be the campaign’s geriatric candidate. He’s spent well over 40 years serving in high office, 36 in the Senate and the past seven as vice president. To be frank, he looks old, a major problem in a profession where appearances are, if not everything, certainly meaningful. While Sanders may look just as old, his youthful fervor seems to revitalize his image. More importantly, Biden, even more so than Clinton, doesn’t seem to have a strong message besides being the natural successor to carry on Obama’s legacy. The death of his son Beau was a national tragedy, and while Joe may be inspired to honor Beau’s memory, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a plan to strengthen the country. While he could surely concoct some rousing phrases about “restoring the middle class,” and “strengthening our economy,” the fact remains that his campaign would have none of the revolutionary excitement that surrounds Sanders’s, or the history-making potential that accompanies Clinton’s. He would be just another old, white man in a suit, equivocating and triangulating his way through a campaign. It is hard to see how he could inspire a diverse Democratic coalition to turn out for him on Election Day.
So will 2016 be a repeat of 1968? Most likely not. President Johnson was saddled with one of the worst foreign policy disasters in U.S history. Hillary erased a few emails. Nonetheless, should Hillary’s campaign go down in flames, don’t be surprised if you see “Middle Class Joe” shaking hands in Ohio in October of 2016.
Brett Parker, a junior studying political science, is the managing editor of Stanford Political Journal.