Reflections on Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign: western primary voters wanted someone else
Awaiting the next word on Jimmy Carter, the 98-year-old former president now in hospice care at his Georgia home, may stir some reflection on his 1976 campaign when voters in western states’ primaries all wanted someone else to be the Democratic standard bearer.
And Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington was actually the favorite to win the nomination when the’76 campaign for president began. It was a role Jackson might already have held had the script of fate been written differently 16 years earlier.
The challenge in the West for the former Georgia governor wasn’t that his disarming “Hi, my name is Jimmy Carter and I’m running for President” didn’t sell as well with western voters as with those in other parts of the country. Rather it was that 1976 was a year of western favorite sons or favorite sons of neighbor states.
In fact, two of the favorite sons, Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona, were considered to be in the running, along with Carter, through the primary election season and collected delegates at the party’s national convention.
Church and Udall were longtime opponents of the Vietnam War with Church’s opposition dating back to 1963, well before the escalation began under Lyndon Johnson. The opposition was part of the Church’s criticism of American policy in Southeast Asia.
And though the final day of the war had been in 1975, the campaigns of most presidential hopefuls had begun by then and its political impact on the electorate still echoed into 1976.
The other favorite son was California Gov. Jerry Brown, then only two years into his first term as California chief executive, who won both his state’s primary and the Nevada primary.
Udall, who won the Arizona caucuses, finished second to Carter in the delegate contest at the Democratic National Convention and Brown third. Church won Idaho, Montana, and, in an upset, Oregon.
Jackson was a long-prominent Senate Democrat, including having been chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1960 and had been on the short, short list for the vice presidential role with John F. Kennedy before JFK decided to pick Lyndon Johnson because of his Texas and southern ties. Thus Jackson might have already been president before 1976.
Jackson’s appeal rested on his political beliefs that were characterized by support of civil rights, human rights, and safeguarding the environment. He was one of the few members of Congress who sent his children to D.C. public schools.
But his equally strong commitment to oppose totalitarianism in general and communism in particular and support for the Vietnam War as the focus of his campaign against communism brought a hostile reception from the party’s left wing.
Jackson’s run for president in 1972 drew little support but by the time of the 1976 campaign, he was viewed as the frontrunner. He received substantial financial support from Jewish Americans who admired his pro-Israel views.
Ultimately, Jackson’s decision not to compete in the early Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary spelled doom for his presidential aspirations as Carter took the largest percentage of caucus votes in Iowa and won the New Hampshire primary over four other candidates.
Jackson won the Massachusetts primary but after losing the key Pennsylvania primary to Carter by 12 points, he dropped out of the race.
I had the chance to help cover the 1976 Oregon primary for United Press International as a political reporter and so had the opportunity to see Carter, Church, and Brown on the campaign trail in that state.
One of my favorite memories from my political writer days was when I was sent to the Portland airport to interview Church as he arrived on election night, with returns showing he was on the way to a substantial victory over Carter.
So as I walked up to a smiling Church as he walked from his plane to the airport, introduced myself and asked: “So, are you going to be viewed, senator, as the new “Lion of Idaho?”
The question was a reference to Sen. William Borah, who was affectionately, and widely, known as “The Lion of Idaho” during his 33 years in the Senate, elected in 1907 as a Republican and establishing himself as a prominent progressive with fiery independence.
“I’d be fine with that,” Church responded with a smile, “as long as I don’t also become known as "'the stallion of Idaho,’”: apparently an amused reference to a lesser-known aspect of Borah’s reputation.
Despite losing the western primaries and caucuses, Carter went on to win the nomination and defeat Gerald Ford in the 1976 general election and become the nation’s 39th president. And it was losing four years later to Ronald Reagan that the door was opened in his post-presidential decades to become known for a life of service, which will be his lasting legacy.
Jackson died on September 1, 1983, of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 71, in his 30 in the Senate.
Jackson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984. President Ronald Reagan called him "one of the greatest lawmakers of our century.”
And as a closing note, it’s difficult for a one-time political writer not to offer the following observation: For a man with Carter’s experience and background to defeat three highly respected and qualified members of Congress like Jackson, Church, and Udall is an indication of the role of timing and circumstance in fate's scripting.
But the important role Carter came to play after his single term as president may be taken as evidence that fate, in whatever form, does have a plan.