Published November 12, 2019
Late entrants have a horrible track record in Democratic primaries. In 1972, establishmentarians frightened by liberal Sen. George McGovern’s (S.D.) momentum pushed former vice president Hubert Humphrey into the race. Humphrey won a few primaries but ultimately was unable to stop McGovern. Four years later, a new outsider, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, had the Beltway types worried. They banked their hopes on California Gov. Jerry Brown, who had not yet descended into flakiness. Once again, Brown won some primaries, but Carter still easily prevailed. Gen. Wesley Clark tried to play a similar role in the 2004 race, entering in mid-September in a vain effort to stop the progressive heartthrob, former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Dean flopped, but not because of Clark, who won only Oklahoma on his way to a forgettable finish.
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s (N.Y.) 1968 run for president is the exception that proves the rule. He joined the race following President Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision not to run for reelection following his shockingly small victory margin over Sen. Eugene McCarthy (Minn.) in the New Hampshire primary. McCarthy and Kennedy traded primary wins until California, where Kennedy’s victory seemed to knock McCarthy out of the running until Kennedy was assassinated.
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Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.