Thursday, February 24, 2011

When Presidential Politics Began to Change

Presidential politics began to change on this day 35 years ago, although no one knew it at the time.

Not even Jimmy Carter, and he is the man who was responsible for the change.

On this day in 1976, the people in New Hampshire went to the polls to express their preferences for president in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

Carter was but one of about half a dozen people on the Democratic ballot. Only two candidates — President Ford and Ronald Reagan — were on the Republican ballot.

New Hampshire, of course, was then, as it is now, the first state to hold a presidential primary, and all the hopefuls — the longshots as well as the favorites — came to pursue every possible vote. In modern times, New Hampshire's retail politics has both launched and destroyed presidential campaigns, and in 1976, until this day, most of the serious contenders for their parties' nominations were on the ground there, each hoping to be the one to catch lightning in a bottle.

Historically, however, presidential primaries were relatively rare prior to 1976. Delegates were still chosen via caucuses or in the old–fashioned smoke–filled rooms, where politicos made deals with no consideration given to their constituents' wishes. Before 1976, many primaries were nothing more than popularity contests.

When things got started in 1976, the three Democrats who were probably considered the front runners for the nomination were Sen. Henry Jackson, Gov. George Wallace and Gov. Jerry Brown. A fourth — Ted Kennedy — was probably the sentimental choice of many Democrats, but he declined to seek the nomination.

Carter made a point of entering every Democratic primary, taking his case directly to the people. He really had no choice. When the primary season began in 1976, he was virtually unknown nationally, even though he had finished ahead of five other rivals in the Iowa caucuses in January.

(People often think Carter won those caucuses, but he didn't. He finished second to "uncommitted.")

The Iowa caucuses really didn't have a lot of clout in those days — and that, too, I think is something that Carter changed because, as he had hoped, Iowa gave him some momentum — and he did go on to win the New Hampshire primary four weeks later.

There was talk at the time that the results might have been different if Jackson had entered both Iowa and New Hampshire, but he did not, and his victory in the Massachusetts primary the following week could not derail Carter, who won the next 10 primaries and, in essence, clinched the Democratic nomination in late spring.

With the nomination assured, Carter could take his time in selecting his running mate, a luxury that was rarely available to presumptive nominees prior to that time.

"If an instant choice had been required at that time," Carter wrote in "Keeping Faith," his presidential memoir, "it would have been Senator Frank Church of Idaho, or perhaps Senator Henry Jackson of Washington."

Jackson, however, might have caused problems within the party. His support for the Vietnam War had been divisive. Church would have caused no such problem.

Ultimately, of course, Carter chose Walter Mondale.

"I have always been thankful that we formed this partnership," Carter wrote. "He has sound judgment and strong beliefs and has never been timid about presenting them forcefully to me. But whenever I made a final decision, even when it was contrary to his own original recommendation, he gave me his full support."

The relationship between the president and the vice president would be forever changed by the Carter–Mondale partnership. Until they were elected in 1976, most presidents seemed to ignore their vice presidents.

But that, of course, was still in the future. On this day in 1976, it was far from clear who would be the Democrats' standard bearer that fall.

When I think of that day, I think of a ritual that I started the day before and repeated frequently that year with a dear friend of mine. I've written about her here before. I knew her as "Aunt Bess."

I had been visiting Aunt Bess on Wednesday afternoons for about four months when the 1976 presidential campaign got under way. She was old enough to be my grandmother, and she would listen to whatever I had to say as intently as any grandmother would.

Our Wednesday afternoons together were special for both of us. She would pour glasses of tea or Coke or whatever she had on hand, and we would sit and sip our drinks and talk for an hour or more on the issues of the day. If the weather was nice, we might sit outside. Other times, we would sit in her dining room, which was rather small but had the benefit of a large window through which we could watch the world while we talked.

Then, when our time was up, she would prepare to leave for church, and I would return home.

It is a memory that means a great deal to me now. I loved Aunt Bess very much. In fact, she and another good friend of mine, Phyllis (I've written about Phyllis here frequently since she died last August), were members of the same Baptist church in my hometown.

(Actually, the fact that they were both Baptists really isn't significant, I suppose. I was brought up in the Methodist church in my hometown, but the fact is that, then as now, Baptists far outnumbered any other religious group in Arkansas.

(When I lived there, it really wasn't possible to not have friends who were Baptists. Well, perhaps it was possible, but I know it wasn't easy. Can't say I ever tried to prove or disprove it, but I'm pretty sure it is so. More than three–quarters of Arkansans are Protestants, and half of them are Baptists. I don't know what the percentages were in Conway at that time, but they probably mirrored the rest of the state.)

By late February 1976, we had been talking about the presidential campaign for several weeks. We had both become Carter supporters since his strong showing in Iowa, and we both hoped a Southerner could win the nomination and the general election, but neither of us would commit to the idea that it was probable — or even possible.

In February 1976, Carter had generated some talk, but there wasn't much evidence, even after the New Hampshire primary, that he was anything more than the flavor of the month, the latest manifestation of the public's desire to sweep away the last remaining traces of the Nixon years.

Then, the day before the primary, I remember calling Aunt Bess on the phone and giving her my prediction for what would happen the next day.

I remember few specifics about my prediction — except that I correctly predicted who would win on each side. Carter's victory that day really wasn't a big surprise. He had been in the news after his showing in Iowa, and I predicted that he would receive about 30% of the vote. He actually got 28% of the vote, but that was clearly more than the runnerup, Mo Udall, got.

I was most proud, at the time, of my prediction in the Republican primary. President Ford and the GOP establishment were nervous about Ronald Reagan, and many believed Ford was vulnerable for a number of reasons.

It turned out they were right — but in the general election, not the primaries, even though Reagan did make things interesting, to say the least.

Prior to the primary, most observers said the GOP race was a tossup. I told Aunt Bess that Ford would win by a single percentage point — and he did.

In hindsight, though, I'm proud of something else. I told Aunt Bess that I thought Carter would be the Democrats' nominee — "and I think he'll beat Ford." I didn't mention it again, and I have seldom thought of it in years.

I still like to predict the outcomes of presidential primaries and elections. We still have one presidential election every four years, but there are a lot more presidential primaries than there were when Carter first sought the presidency.

And that is a major part of his legacy.

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