With Barack Obama winning 11 contests since Super Tuesday, and appearing well on his way to winning a clear majority of elected delegates, it looks unlikely that Hillary Clinton could win the Democratic nomination without depending on the unelected party stalwarts (“superdelegates”) to push her over the top. History provides us with a test case of this scenario, in which a major party faced a choice between the managerial (but perhaps less than visionary) heir to a successful previous administration, and an inspiring, popular speaker. The inspirational candidate had the edge going into the convention and enjoyed the approval of voters, but the nomination went instead to the party insider. The leaders of the Democratic Party in 2008 should learn from the errors the leaders of the Republican Party made in 1912.
Then as now, most Americans wanted change from Republican governance. With the exception of the two Grover Cleveland interregna, Republicans had held the presidency since before the Civil War. They had passed policies favored by corporate management and allowed industry executives into the highest councils of the party. Even a great many voters who preferred Republicans to Democrats believed their party had betrayed them, allowing the banking and business centers of the East to take advantage of farmers and homesteaders on the frontier. They wanted more popular participation in elections and in policymaking, more progressive taxation, and less corporate control of policy.
Recognizing this demand for change, the former president Theodore Roosevelt challenged the incumbent, William Howard Taft, for the Republican nomination, running an insurgent campaign to take back the GOP for the people. Taft's strategy to stop Roosevelt's momentum bears striking resemblance to those employed by Clinton in her race against Obama. Taft tried to reckon with the Roosevelt insurgency by claiming America had no real need for change, and suggested demands for reform were unpatriotic: He did not understand “the continued iteration and reiteration of the proposition, ‘Let the people rule,’ ” saying, “I do not hesitate to say that the history of the last 135 years shows that the people have ruled ... [U]nder our present constitution and our present laws we have had a really popular government.” Taft also criticized the rules that made Roosevelt’s challenge possible, saying they were “unfair,” especially the open primaries. Neither of these tactics particularly endeared him to an electorate excited by the twin prospects of a real shift in American politics and the opportunity to vote directly for it themselves. Realizing this, Taft tried to co-opt Roosevelt's appeal, asking plaintively “whether I am not entitled to the same name of progressive.”
Perhaps slightly unfairly, the electorate appeared to think the answer to this question was, “No.” To claim the “progressive” name, Taft could point to a vigorous record of antitrust prosecution, as well as constitutional amendments to permit an income tax and the direct election of U.S. senators that were passed on his watch. But he had urged neither with particular energy, and until he was threatened with Roosevelt’s return to politics, seemed content to present himself as a devoted public servant of the status quo.
Unable to deny the progressive impulse or the democratized primaries their legitimacy, and equally unable to benefit from them himself, Taft wondered if Roosevelt and his followers suffered messianic delusions, asking, “Can he usher in the millennium?” Such drama poorly suited the normally grave Taft, who lost one primary after another. Under the pressure, Taft wept in an interview when he thought of his rejection by his former friend--and his party’s voters.
Of the delegates chosen by voters, Roosevelt had an overwhelming majority: 278 to Taft’s 48. But in the convention, a candidate would need 540 delegates to claim the nomination, and hundreds of delegates would be awarded by the Republican National Committee, a majority of whose members were Taft men. They put him over the top. Roosevelt and his supporters bolted the party and formed the Progressive party. In the general election, Taft came in a pathetic third behind Roosevelt and the victorious Woodrow Wilson.
Should Obama win a majority of delegates chosen by voters, the Democrats will head into their convention facing much the same choice as the Republicans of 1912: Either they can use party machinery to crown Clinton, or they can use the evident wishes of their constituents as a fine excuse to set aside prior pledges, and instead elevate the popular favorite and the candidate of the change Americans claim to crave.
A Clinton nomination would be unlikely to literally split the Democratic Party, as it did the Republicans in 1912. But it would echo the unpopularity of the Taft selection and reflect the party's determination to ignore the obvious electoral signal. Roosevelt's popular run for the nomination was not only the product of his monstrous ego, but a symptom of the deep desire within his party for change, and the Republicans suffered for deflecting that desire by choosing Taft. Eschewing the more popular Obama for the relatively unexciting Clinton would deliver a similarly dispiriting blow to the Democrats this year.
As James Chace and others have argued, a Roosevelt run and win almost certainly would have been better for the Republican Party in the long run as well: The inspiring Roosevelt, with a track record of reform, persuasively represented the cross-party appeal of Republican progressivism in a way that the competent Taft, with a track record of conservatism, never could. Likewise, the inspiring Obama--who has a more substantive track record than his opponents and flippant commentators appear to believe--would represent liberalism more persuasively and appealingly in a general election than the trimming Clinton, while simultaneously offering the promise of a post-partisan appeal to independent voters.
The lessons of history cannot bind us so tightly that we ignore obvious differences between the past and present: While Clinton may have thus far followed the Taft script surprisingly closely, Obama has avoided anything like Roosevelt’s talking points; the Bull Moose called his former friend a “puzzlewit” and a “fathead,” and the avoidance of low tactics (so far, at least) accounts for a large part of Obama’s charm. He seems now to have Roosevelt’s major virtues--courage, speaking talent, a progressive record--without his characteristic vices. And as with Roosevelt, it seems clear that if Obama does indeed win a majority of popularly chosen delegates, the party will be best served--both at the polls and in policy formation going forward--by letting the loyalties of pledged partisans yield to the choice of actual voters.
Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. He also blogs for The Edge of the American West.