Dem’s deja vu of ‘08?
— Is the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders more like 2008 or 1980?
In other words, more like the contest between Clinton and Barack Obama, a long, sometimes acrimonious fight that ultimately ended in a unified party winning the presidency?
Or more like the battle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy, an ideological brawl that dragged on through the convention and eventually saw the incumbent Democratic president defeated?
Democrats need to hope for 2008 and, for now, that race seems the more relevant precedent. Yet they have reasons to fear a 1980 repeat — and some who lived through that campaign are having unwelcome flashbacks to its length, bitterness and disappointing result.
The argument that 2016 more closely resembles 2008 rests on the important caution that, notwithstanding Thursday’s gloves-off debate, hard-fought campaigns tend to get to this level of invective, if not beyond. These wounds always seem gaping at the time; they tend to heal faster than expected.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama, much like Sanders now, questioned Clinton’s judgment in backing the war in Iraq and accused her of selling out workers (“While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart,” he said in one particularly acid debate moment). As with Sanders, Clinton insinuated that Obama was unprepared for the 3 a.m. phone call and naive about the difficulty of achieving the change he was peddling.
Still, Clinton voters who were predicted to — who vowed to — sit it out eight years ago ended up coming around for Obama. In May 2008, exit polls showed half of Clinton supporters in Indiana and North Carolina insisting they would not vote for Obama over John McCain. In the end, turnout was high — and nine in 10 Democratic voters overall backed Obama.
This year, if anything, the Sanders-Clinton split is less intense: A McClatchyMarist poll shows only one-fourth of Sanders supporters saying they would not back Clinton if she wins the nomination. It would be stunning if the resistance remained that high, especially with the motivating effects of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz on the GOP ticket.
Yet if Obama-Clinton was hard-fought, it was at bottom a less ideological campaign than the current Clinton-Sanders battle, which argues for the 1980 analogy. “Obama, unlike Bernie, was not the candidate of the left,” said Obama’s former chief strategist, David Axelrod. “It was mostly a disagreement about a style of politics. There is more of an ideological bent to the Sanders campaign, and in that regard the reconciliation is more difficult.”
Hence the echoes of Kennedy-Carter, another, although even sharper, battle for the soul of the party. At the convention, Kennedy mounted an unsuccessful challenge to party rules that bound delegates on the first ballot. Following Carter’s acceptance speech, Kennedy belatedly appeared on the podium for a perfunctory handshake.
“I think it’s more like Kennedy-Carter,” Gerald Rafshoon, who lived through that time as a senior Carter aide, said of the Sanders-Clinton fight. “Bernie’s message is really resonating with the Democratic base. He’s got a huge following, and if he stays in the race past the time that she’s the inevitable nom inee, it can hurt her in the same way Kennedy hurt Carter.”
If the state of the economy and the popularity of the incumbent president are predictive of election results, this campaign looks far different from 1980. Carter was an unpopular president overseeing a dismal economy with soaring inflation and high unemployment. At this point in the 1980 campaign, his approval rating was 39 percent, whereas Obama has cracked 50 percent in some recent polls — a distinction that leads some to reject the 1980 comparison.
“Carter didn’t lose because Kennedy challenged him,” said Bob Shrum, who wrote Kennedy’s rousing convention speech. “Kennedy challenged him because Carter was going to lose.”
At the same time, Clinton’s own negatives are in Carter territory, or worse. A new CBS News poll has her at 31 percent favorable, 54 percent unfavorable. Among Democrats, the vitriolic campaign is taking a toll: Gallup’s Frank Newport reports that Clinton’s net favorable ratings among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have dropped from plus 63 points in early November to just 36 points now. If it was ever true that Clinton benefited from having a primary challenge, that’s no longer the case.
If Democrats are lucky, the 2016 campaign will evolve along the lines of 2008. But 1980 lingers as a cautionary, and increasingly relevant, tale.
Ruth Marcus is a syndicated columnist. Contact her at ruthmarcus@washpost. com.