Ever heard of Edmund Muskie, Paul Tsongas, or Jeb Bush? Okay, that last one was a bit hard, but if you’re not sure who he is, he’s the scion of an American political dynasty who got his pants pulled down in the current campaign for the Republican nomination by a blowhard novelty candidate. The three names I’ve mentioned were all, at one stage or another, viewed as being among the frontrunners for their party’s nomination for president. Muskie sought the Democratic nomination in 1972, and was the party establishment favourite, but his campaign imploded in New Hampshire following a series of attacks. Most notorious of these was the “Canuck Letter”, which was later revealed to be a forgery that emanated from Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks unit. The defining image of Muskie’s campaign was an emotional speech during a snowstorm he gave outside the offices of the Manchester Union-Leader, during which it was claimed by the press that he had broken down and cried. Muskie himself claimed that the water drops on his face were melted snowflakes.
Paul Tsongas was one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination in 1992. Like Muskie, he too lost his momentum in New Hampshire, even though he too, like Muskie, won the primary there. Which brings me to the point of this blog post, which is the strange concept of momentum in political campaigns. Especially when it comes to the nomination process in American presidential elections, a mystical world suffused with superstition, symbolism and other phenomena, where a candidate can conjure a perception in the minds of the media and voters by some sleight of hand, however at odds that might be with the votes they’ve hitherto received. Bill Clinton lost that New Hampshire primary by 8 points, but left the state a winner so far as his campaign was concerned, a narrative the media complied with as Clinton dubbed himself the “Comeback Kid”. It was often claimed subsequently that salvaging second place in New Hampshire helped propel Clinton to the nomination and then the presidency.
In a way this blog is a little late, coming as it does a few days before Super Tuesday and the 13 locations (12 states and American Samoa) that will be in play between the two parties, after which the Abba lyric will start to run out of road, and losers will be less able to pass themselves off as winners. But in this insane electoral cycle, maybe Tuesday’s losers might be able to spin their defeats – say, with talk of spreads and campaign strength in particular states – to keep them in the game for a bit longer. The Republican party grandees will definitely not want to acquiesce in a Trump coronation, however sweeping his victories on Tuesday end up being. Hillary Clinton’s narrow victory over Bernie Sanders in Nevada and heavy win in South Carolina are being depicted in some quarters as the beginning of the end of the Democratic race, but are they really decisive moments when it is not a case of winner-takes-all in state primaries and caucuses, and with the overall number of delegates won and votes cast still fairly even in that race?
We could be heading for a return to the days when candidates were chosen in smoke-filled rooms at national conventions. And that’s where the usual straightforward conception of winners and losers as it pertains to other areas of life could be thoroughly upended once more. If it comes to that, there’s only one prediction I feel safe making. Watch out for Hillary’s superdelegates!