Can Anyone Beat Trump in the Primary? History Says No
Let’s say you’re a Republican who is looking with abject terror at the thought of a Donald Trump nomination. You look at poll numbers from upcoming states—Trump by six! Trump by eight! You read and hear about “vectors” and “glide paths”, and you start looking for reassurance that it’s still early, that the last shall be first. Examples abound in sports—didn’t the Red Sox trail the Yankees 3-0 in the 2004 League Championship Series? Weren’t the New York Giants 13 1/2 games out of first in 1951? Surely there are cases where a doomed candidate turned the campaign around, right?
Well…sort of. There are any number of primary campaigns that saw a significant shift of fortunes, but they provide cold comfort for the anti-Trumpeteers. Why? Because 1) they happened a relatively long time ago, 2) they all happened in two-candidate races and 3) none of them resulted in a victory for the come-from behind candidate.
When President Gerald Ford barely beat ex-California Governor Ronald Reagan in New Hampshire in 1976, it might have been seen as a strong showing against a sitting President. But because the Reagan campaign had touted his strength there, the close finish was portrayed as a loss. When Ford won the next four primaries, including a landslide win in Illinois, Reagan’s challenge was on life-support.
In North Carolina, however, a combination of Senator Jesse Helms’ organizational muscle and a half-hour TV speech centered on foreign policy gave Reagan a victory that kept his campaign alive. Over the next 10 weeks, Reagan won 10 primaries, turning the fight into a delegate-by-delegate battle. In the end, the power of incumbency and a last-minute flip by the Mississippi delegation on a crucial rules fight gave the nomination to Ford. We have not seen a genuinely contested nomination fight since.
Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to President Jimmy Carter seemed star-crossed from the beginning. An awful prime-time interview with CBS’s Roger Mudd, the seizure of American hostages in Iran that kept Carter safely in the Rose Garden, and a largely unfriendly primary calendar combined to send Kennedy to defeat after defeat.
Of the first ten contests, he won only his native Massachusetts. With polls showing him headed to a big loss in New York, his campaign prepared to fold its tents. But the polls were wrong. Kennedy won the state by an 18-point landslide. That gave his campaign enough energy to keep the fight going all the way through the primaries—he won California, New Jersey, and seven other states—and the convention. He was never able to close the gap, but with more than a third of the delegates, Kennedy was able to win platform concessions and a much-celebrated prime-time speech. (He was also able, intentionally or not, to subject Carter to the humiliation of pursuing him at the rostrum in an attempt to stage a hands-clasped unity photo opportunity.)
Few campaigns have seen more twists and turns than the 1984 Democratic primary. What began as a ceremonial coronation of former Vice President Walter Mondale was upended, with no advance warning, when Senator Gary Hart and his “new ideas” campaign won a landslide in New Hampshire. He followed that with five wins in the next two weeks; only Mondale victories in Georgia and Alabama, with crucial margins provided by black voters, kept him afloat.
Then a tried-and-true pattern -- rise, scrutiny, decline—kicked in. Hart (unlike Reagan and Kennedy) was a relatively unknown political commodity. When the spotlight turned on him, questions great and small arose: Why had his changed his name from Hartpence? Why was his real age a mystery? More seriously, did the core of the Democratic Party freely want to nominate a figure who regularly challenged liberal orthodoxy (“We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” he once said to a party that revered Humphrey’s liberal passions).
With big-city Democrats, labor, and African-Americans rallying to his side, Mondale won Illinois and then New York by a landslide. Once again, the nomination seemed to be in Mondale’s grasp. But Hart then won a string of primaries in May, and in June beat Mondale in California. Pre-primary polls also showed Hart with a big lead in New Jersey. But when he told a California audience by telephone that he was consigned to a “toxic waste dump in New Jersey,” Garden State Democrats responded by giving Mondale a 16 point win. But for that careless comment, Hart might well have turned the convention into a genuine battle.
That was more than thirty years ago. And in the decades since, there’s been nothing like a sharp turn of fortune in any nominating contest. There have been early challenges to favorites; there has been at least one case—Clinton in 1992—where it took a month or so for the ultimate nominee to win his first primary. There have been years—2008 for Democrats, 2012 for Republicans—when it took months for the nominee to claim enough delegates to end the contest. Moreover, there’s no historical parallel to today’s Republican race. Far from being an unknown commodity like Hart in 1984, Trump is better known than any of his rivals. And given that what he has handily survived, it is hard to imagine what he might say or do that could properly be described as “self-destructive.”
This doesn’t mean a Trump nomination is a done deal. With a majority of the party still opposing him, a two-person race offers a theoretical possibility. There may be enough left of “traditional Republicans” that a unified chorus proclaiming Trump a disaster could prove effective. But if you’re a Republican looking to find a clue to derailing Trump, history is not going to offer you anything like a roadmap.