Sarah Churchwell: Hang on in there, Hillary. It's too soon to quit

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Last October, a revelatory Vanity Fair article called "Going After Gore" traced the dubious history of the "toxic coverage" in the US media that irreparably damaged Gore's chances in the 2000 election. The effortless charm of George W Bush was relentlessly contrasted with Gore's inability to turn charm on like a tap.

Gore was seen as too focused on the minutiae of policy, and as someone who wasn't a natural politician, whose lack of ease with the press, and the public, was a liability in a campaign increasingly run on personality and on rhetoric. Bush was the man reporters wanted to have a beer with: a roguish, fun-loving guy who'd be "a different kind of Republican". Meanwhile, a journalist with Time magazine admitted: "It's really easy, and it's fun to disprove Al Gore." And so they went for him, setting him up and then shooting him down.

As the calls for Hillary Clinton, another "unnatural" politician and "charmless" policy wonk who has been excoriated by the press, to concede the primary race for the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama grow louder and more hectoring, it seems worth pausing to consider whether history might have anything to teach.

The most common reason put forward for insisting that Clinton "do the right thing" and "bow out graciously" is that she is doing the Democratic party, and its chances in November, irretrievable harm by prolonging the internecine struggle of the primary contest and taking it to the convention (despite the fact that the chairman of the National Democratic Committee, Howard Dean, has suggested that the nomination should be decided around 1 July).

A similar argument was advanced in 2000, pressuring Gore to concede the presidency to Bush, or risk a "constitutional crisis" – American code for "rip the country apart". He was told he couldn't win, that the people had spoken, that he should concede graciously and let the system work – the one the Republicans were busy rigging. So he conceded. That turned out well, didn't it?

Yes, the general election is different from the primaries. But far from being an especially protracted Democratic primary, this one is right on historical track. June is actually the magic month, in which the Democratic nomination was clinched in 1992 by Bill Clinton; in 1988 by Dukakis (Jesse Jackson didn't withdraw until June); in 1984 by Mondale (who didn't officially gain the nomination until the convention in July); in 1976 by Carter; and in 1972, the first year in which the present primary system operated, by McGovern. The only exception to the June rule was the 1980 election, in which Edward Kennedy fought on against Carter all the way until the convention in August. Only in the last two elections, in other words, has the Democratic nomination been a foregone conclusion this early in the primary process. And neither the results of 2000 or 2004 should send Democrats rushing to foreclose their options.

The other argument for Clinton's summary withdrawal is that using superdelegates would somehow be cheating, subverting the democratic process by asking party mandarins to overrule the popular vote and, while they're at it, refuse the first viable African-American candidate his legitimate shot at the White House. But no one seems to have any compunction about insisting that the first woman with a legitimate chance withdraw from the race. And yes, the superdelegates are a legitimate route: the US primaries are not mini-national elections, they are much closer to the UK system of electing a party leader, who then seeks the popular vote in a general election.

Meanwhile, that much-vaunted primary "popular vote" that Clinton has lost doesn't take account of the Democrats or independents in Michigan or Florida, both of which will be swing states in November; or that only 60,000 popular votes separate Clinton and Obama if Michigan and Florida are counted; or that the superdelegate rule was created precisely in order to decide primary races in which there was no clear popular mandate. It is by no means definitionally sexist to call for Clinton to resign, but given how gingerly everyone is approaching the question of Obama's (mixed) race, it seems worth letting the country prove the point.

But the most important reason to cease pressuring Clinton to quit is that the media and the blogosphere, delighting in their sportive shredding of Gore's electoral chances in 2000, helped pave the way for the disastrous US administration of the last eight years. If the media enjoyed dismantling Gore, their pursuit of Clinton has been blood-sport. Let's allow history, and democracy, to play out their course – and stop creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

The writer is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

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