Revisiting the 1976 Election

The 2020 Presidential Election season starting to spring up, and it is anticipated that we could have as many as 20 or more candidates on the Democratic side.  When was the last time we had a large field of intellectually diverse candidates and what does it say about this election?  The answer is 1976 when 15 Dems ran, and as to what it says, it’s easy to say, “A lot and yet not much.”

1976 was the first election following Watergate.  The landslide 1972 election (Nixon won every state but one) was thrown into question due to a crew of “plumbers” who broke into and bugged the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building in DC.  It was also disclosed through hearings and Pulitzer Prize reporting from the Washington Post that Nixon and the Committee to Re-Elect the President had a whole operation of “dirty tricks” to undermine Democratic support.  On the eve of his impeachment, Nixon announced his resignation from office and left in disgrace.  His successor Gerald Ford, pardoned him for all crimes associated with Watergate, which ensured the country would move forward from the debacle but left a bitter taste in America’s mouth.

So the parallels between 1976 and 2020 are similar.  We have an unpopular president whose legitimacy and temperament are questioned.  We have a large field of candidates in an open election, with no clear front runner.  We have the economic boom starting to give way to turmoil and trade wars.  We also had racial and gender social changes taking hold.  So who won the Democratic Nomination?–A religiously conservative peanut farmer from Georgia who many outside the state had never heard of before 1976.

With everything going on, it was a bit of a surprise that Jimmy Carter would be the one to carry the mantle of the Democrats in 1976, but when one looks at the bigger picture, maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising.

The Democratic Party of 1976

The Dems of 1976 were splitting at the seams.  LBJ’s civil rights agenda, which was now prevalent within the party, was still causing turmoil within it. Southern Democrats still opposed racial progress and still carried outsize weight within the nominating schedule.  Dems had had a disaster in the 1972 election, and were hopeful the same debacle wouldn’t occur again.  However, the party had become weak organizationally, and regional, benefiting different candidates around the country.

With the field open, fifteen candidates threw their hats into the ring:

  • Jimmy Carter, Governor of Georgia
  • Mo Udall, Representative of Arizona
  • George Wallace, Governor of Alabama
  • Jerry Brown, Governor of California
  • Frank Church, Senator from Idaho
  • Henry Jackson, Senator from Washington
  • Fred Harris, former Senator from Oklahoma
  • Robert Byrd, Senator from West Virginia
  • Milton Schapp, Governor of Pennsylvania
  • Sargent Shriver, Former Ambassador to France, From Maryland (and a Kennedy)
  • Birch Bayh, Senator from Indiana
  • Lloyd Bentsen, Senator from Texas
  • Terry Sanford, Former Governor of North Carolina
  • Walter Fauntroy, Delegate to the House from Washington D.C.
  • Ellen McCormack, from New York

So we had largely a wide group from the South, a number of candidates from out west and a few from the midwest trying for the White House.  How did it all play out?

The Campaign Schedule

The schedule is a little different from today, but Iowa is still first in the schedule.  In January, 1976, Jimmy Carter won the Iowa Caucuses with 27.57% of the caucus.  Bayh came in a distant second with 13.19%.  However, the largest vote went to “Uncommitted” with 37%.  Clearly, Democratic caucus goers warmed to Carter, but he and the field there needed to do some work.  To many, Carter was the “safest bet” among all the candidates; not controversial, not someone who would provoke or anger, and overall pretty milquetoast in personality.  Despite who one may have preferred as a candidate, most all democrats liked Carter at least to a degree they felt OK with him.

The next state, Mississippi, went to Wallace with 40%+ of the vote.  Carter held strong with ~15%, and won Oklahoma with only 18%; but most of the candidates were either not yet in the race, or were campaigning in other more competitive states.  In NH, where Mo Udall made a strong showing, Carter beat him by 6 pts.  In Florida, Carter won by 4 over Wallace and 11 over Jackson.  In IL and NC, the gaps only widened.  Carter was starting to run away with it, even though in most all of the states, “Uncommitted” had a large share of the vote.

That is until Jerry Brown entered the race.  Because filing deadlines had already passed in many states, Brown’s first contest was the May primary in Maryland.  In that contest, Brown bested Carter 48.4% to 37%.  Carter continued to rack up delegates in states Brown could not compete in because of filing (Michigan, Arkansas and Kentucky) but in the next competitive state of Nevada, Brown won again 53%-23%.  In the first tight state, Oregon, Carter edged Brown (but both lost to Idaho’s Frank Church).

Carter kept putting away small states, one after the other, until the California Primary where he got trounced by Brown again, 59% to 20%.  But by then it was too late, Carter had racked up enough wins to solidify his standing and enough delegates at the convention to win the nomination.  Still, it showed the precarious schism in the party. Eight candidates had won more than 10 delegates, and 7 (!) different candidates had won various states throughout the party primaries, not including “uncommitted” which would have won several.

The general election Carter of course won, but where he won is both insightful to his success, and also of how he lost to Reagan in 1980.  Carter won primarily in the South and Mid-Atlantic, along with Minnesota (his running mate was Walter Mondale from the state) and Wisconsin.  He didn’t win a state west of Minnesota other than Texas.  In 1980, when Reagan appealed to Southern Conservatives and Texans (by including native son George H.W. Bush on the ticket) Carter had no path to electoral vote victory.

What it says about 2020

With that in mind, what does it say about the 2020 race?  First, I think it confirms the need to win one of the early nominating states; Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada all come early in the schedule and have an outsize weight in winnowing the field down and providing momentum to those candidates. California is earlier in the nominating process than normal (on Super Tuesday, along with much of the South) but by then the field may be narrower.  One candidate who skipped Iowa and New Hampshire (Rudy Giuliani in 2008) in favor of focusing on Florida failed miserably in that regard.  You have to have a good showing in Iowa and/or New Hampshire.

Second, the field and organization matters.  The selection of the not very charismatic Carter over more telegenic and well known competitors may be surprising until you realize Carter spent a lot of time in Iowa courting voters, and as a farmer was able to identify with them in a very personal way.  While not great on TV, Carter is a very warm, likable person in person and it went a long way to helping him win Iowa and gain traction.  Also, focusing on winning in every state, even states democrats didn’t always compete in, went a long way to helping secure Carter the number of delegates needed to win.  This was a strategy Obama worked to great effect on Super Tuesday in 2008, winning small caucus states in the middle of the country while competing evenly with Clinton in typically Democratic states.

Third, while it’s possible that a candidate could win this year focusing only on typical democratic strongholds, such a candidate can open up the potential to lose badly in 2024 if they don’t take steps to reach outside of those states.  If democrats only focus on liberal states, they won’t win outside of the coasts, exposing a fatal weakness to their electoral strategy.  Selecting  a candidate with broad appeal, not just regional appeal, can help secure the electoral votes for the future elections, the question is is that the direction Democrats go?

Lastly, there is definitely enough room on the spectrum to appeal to various groups within the party. Usually these are called “lanes” by the pundits, but it’s more broad and overlapping than that.   As the field narrows down, do they fall in line, or do they keep looking for other candidates?  A big reason Carter was able to win is that despite the large amount of uncommitted votes, voters began to fall in line behind him.  If an Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris wins big early, do all the democrats from the various lanes get in line behind her or do they start looking/pining for someone else?  It remains to be seen.

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