TERRE HAUTE — Indiana, a kingmaker.
The rest of America may shudder at the thought of that concept. Our electoral résumé offers little to ease outsiders’ fears about Hoosiers handling the job of deciding the 2008 Democratic nominee for president. Indeed, the Indiana primary packs a peculiar, undistinguished history.
That track record only adds to the drama surrounding this year’s primary.
Indiana may be the tipping point in the marathon campaign between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Both need to win here. Obama is expected to win North Carolina, the other May 6 primary. In Indiana, though, Obama holds a slight edge in public opinion polls. He could bolster his lead in delegates, votes and states won, and disprove doubts raised by Clinton about his electability by taking Indiana along with North Carolina. An Indiana victory for Clinton legitimizes her claims of being the Democrats’ best chance against Republican Sen. John McCain in November. A loss makes her continued candidacy look obsessive and divisive.
It would appear as though the Indiana winner will become the Democratic nominee. Obama calls Indiana a “tiebreaker.”
Judging by past performances, “curse-maker” might be more accurate.
The Obama-Clinton vote in Indiana is expected to be extremely close. On the few rare occasions when the Hoosier primary wasn’t a done-deal blowout, it produced a tight outcome. In each case, the victor did not become the party’s nominee.
In 1984, Gary Hart won Indiana by just 6,078 votes over Walter Mondale. Even after winning Indiana and Ohio on the same day, Hart still trailed Mondale in delegates. Yet the emboldened Hart insisted, “Democrats of this nation are not about to have this contest and this debate end at this time.” Apparently, they were. Mondale won the nomination, and then got routed by incumbent Ronald Reagan.
Reagan felt the other end of that political sword in the 1976 Indiana primary.
The former California governor was challenging incumbent Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Reagan took Indiana by 16,266 votes, with 323,779 total to Ford’s 307,513. In the last days before the primary, Reagan campaigned hard against big government and a weakening of the national defense. Ford was also hurt by Indiana’s 8.2-percent unemployment rate. On voting day, an estimated 200,000 Hoosiers who had supported segregationist Democrat George Wallace four years earlier abandoned Wallace’s flagging ’76 campaign and backed Reagan.
Afterward, the Reagan camp trumpeted the significance of its Indiana triumph. It was his first primary win north of the Mason-Dixon line. A Reagan campaign aide told United Press International, “There’s no way Ford can stop us now. The tide has turned for good.” (Sound familiar?)
Ford received the Republican nomination, and then got beat by Jimmy Carter in November.
The 1968 primary featured three Democrats — Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy and Indiana Gov. Roger Branigin. In that era, a state’s “favorite son” could run in its presidential primary, and then use any delegates won to play power-broker at the national convention. In ’68, incumbent Lyndon Johnson gave up intentions of seeking re-election, and it was presumed his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, would eventually enter the race. As Indiana’s primary approached, Branigin claimed neutrality, but many suspected his delegates would, at the convention, back Humphrey, who wasn’t on the Indiana ballot.
Kennedy won Indiana with 328,118 votes to Branigin’s 238,700 and McCarthy’s 209,695. McCarthy insisted most Hoosiers who voted for Branigin would’ve otherwise supported him. Afterward, McCarthy said that in “August, I’ll probably still be the frontrunner, as I am now.” Everything changed in June, when an assassin shot and killed Kennedy, who’d just won the California primary. Humphrey defeated McCarthy for the Democratic nomination, and then lost to Republican Richard Nixon in the fall.
The closest Indiana primary margin of victory came in 1920, when military hero Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood edged Sen. Hiram Johnson by 5,868 votes in the Republican race. Indiana’s fourth-place finisher, Warren G. Harding, became the GOP nominee and won the election. And in 1928, Herbert Hoover finished second to Indiana favorite son Sen. James E. Watson by 25,516 votes, but still got the GOP nomination and the presidency.
Given its record, maybe Clinton and Obama should pursue the Hoosier primary with a George Costanza strategy — seek the opposite of what you really want. A loss is a victory.
Hmmm … I may have just written the loser’s concession speech — “On to Kentucky and Oregon!”
Mark Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (812) 231-4377.
Indiana Primary votes
Republican: George W. Bush 469,528.
Democrat: John Kerry 231,047; John Edwards 35,651; Howard Dean 21,482; Wesley Clark 17,437; Dennis J. Kucinich 7,003; Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. 4,591.
Republican: George W. Bush 330,095; John McCain 76,569.
Democrat: Al Gore 219,604; Bill Bradley 64,339; Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. 9,229.
Republican: Bob Dole 365,568; Patrick J. Buchanan 100,166; Steve Forbes 50,780.
Democrat: Bill Clinton 329,462.
Republican: George H.W. Bush 374,666; Patrick J. Buchanan 92,949.
Democrat: Bill Clinton 301,905; Jerry Brown 102,379; Paul Tsongas 58,215; Bob Kerrey 14,350.
Republican: George H.W. Bush 351,829; Bob Dole 42,878; Pat Robertson 28,712; Jack Kemp 14,236.
Democrat: Michael Dukakis 449,495; Jesse Jackson 145,021; Al Gore 21,856; Richard Gephardt 16,777; Paul Simon 12,550.
Republican: Ronald Reagan 428,559.
Democrat: Gary Hart 299,491; Walter Mondale 293,413; Jesse Jackson 98,190; John Glenn 16,046; Bob Brewster 9,815.
Republican: Ronald Reagan 419,016; George H.W. Bush 92,955; John Anderson 56,342.
Democrat: Jimmy Carter 398,949; Ted Kennedy 190,492.
Republican: Ronald Reagan 323,779; Gerald Ford 307,513.
Democrat: Jimmy Carter 417,480; George Wallace 93,121; Scoop Jackson 72,080; Ellen McCormack 31,708.
Republican: Richard M. Nixon 417,069.
Democrat: Hubert H. Humphrey 354,244; George C. Wallace 309,495; Edmund Muskie 87,719.
Republican: Richard M. Nixon 494,766.
Democrat: Robert F. Kennedy 328,118; Roger D. Branigin 238,700; Eugene J. McCarthy 209,695.
Republican: Barry Goldwater 267,935; Harold E. Stassen 107,157; Frank R. Beckwith 17,884; Joseph G. Ettl 6,704.
Democrat: Matthew E. Welsh 376,023; George C. Wallace 172,646; Lar Daly 15,160; John H. Latham 8,067; Fay T. Carpenter Swain 7,140.
Republican: Richard M. Nixon 408,408; Frank R. Beckwith 19,677.
Democrat: John F. Kennedy 353,832; John H. Latham 42,084; Lar Daly 40,853.
Republican: Dwight D. Eisenhower 351,903; Lar Daly 13,320.
Democrat: Estes Kefauver (unopposed).
Presidential primary suspended.
Republican: James E. Watson 228,795; Herbert Hoover 203,279.
Democrat: Evans Woollen 146,934.
Republican: Calvin Coolidge 330,045; Hiram W. Johnson 62,603.
Democrat: No candidate on ballot.
Republican: Leonard Wood 85,708; Hiram W. Johnson 79,840; Frank O. Lowden 39,627; Warren G. Harding 20,782.
Democrats: No candidate on ballot. (Edward I. Edwards of New Jersey withdrew March 18; Thomas R. Marshall withdrew March 20; also no vice presidential candidate.)
Republican: Charles W. Fairbanks 176,078.
Democrat: Woodrow Wilson 160,423.