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The 1976 Democratic presidential primary

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I was 16 years old in 1976, and have only the vaguest memory Jimmy Carter’s sudden rise out of almost total obscurity — in January of 1976 only 2% of Americans could identify him, even though he had been running for president for more than a year by then — to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency.

I took a look back at the primary process, and was struck by several aspects of it:

(1) What the hell was George Wallace doing? By 1976 the idea that Wallace could actually win the nomination was completely absurd: the Dixiecrat wing of the party was in severe terminal decline, and the northern reactionary populist elements were already migrating toward Ronald Reagan et. al. But Wallace carried out an intense and — for the time — well-funded campaign anyway.

(2) What the hell was Jerry Brown doing? Brown was the 37-year-old governor of California when he announced his candidacy in mid-March 1976. By that point he couldn’t even appear on any primary ballots until May. I realize that more than half of the delegates were at that time not being distributed in the primary process, but the idea that Brown could get the support of what was left of the party boss machine just seems weird. Even as late as the spring of 1976 all sorts of party movers and shakers still favored Hubert Humphrey, who it turns out wasn’t running largely if not solely because he had just gotten a dire cancer diagnosis (He died at the beginning of 1978). As of April Carter was still trailing Humphrey in public opinion polls regarding who ought to get the nomination. Frank Church also jumped into the race a few days after Brown, so I’m guessing what happened here is that in March various establishment types realized Carter was on the path to winning, and decided that this development — again, basically nobody knew who this guy was — created an opportunity.

(3) An amusing historical footnote is that Scoop Jackson was the pre-primary favorite, at least among the elite media, who of course were vastly more influential at that time, as in the pre-cable news pre-internet era there were about a dozen significant national media outlets at most.

Anyway Carter’s victory seems very much to have been a bolt out of the blue sort of thing, driven by his canny realization that the new primary process favored somebody who could make a credible showing in all the early primaries, thereby picking off all his plausible opponents one by one.

(4) As for the general election, the electoral map in November of 1976 might as well be of a different country: Carter won basically nothing west of the Mississippi, while Ford won almost nothing east of it, other than his home state and couple of others. It is interesting to note that Carter, who was a committed anti-segregationist, nevertheless swept the entire Old South, in what was in retrospect a strange melding of the remnants of the Dixiecrat party with a man who, for all his many flaws from a progressive/left perspective, was a staunch opponent of the white supremacist code that was about to take over the Republican party.

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