Monday, October 3, 2011

After the Starter's Gun

I mentioned earlier that the early reform years, roughly 1972-1980, are just different from the fully-evolved process that settled in during the 1980s and continues to the present. One good indicator of that is that in 1972 and 1976, candidates actually believed they could jump in after New Hampshire -- a strategy that was perfectly reasonable in the previous era (1912 through 1968), but made no sense at all under the reformed process.

In 1972, both Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace started late and skipped New Hampshire (and the little-noticed Iowa caucuses, which helped George McGovern get his campaign started); both, I believe, had entered the race in late 1971, but believed that they could begin organizing for primaries after New Hampshire. It's a bit hard to get info on it, but I believe that Scoop Jackson and John Lindsay also skipped New Hampshire (and Iowa) in order to focus on the upcoming Florida primary. Of course, the upshot of all this was that all future candidates would compete in New Hampshire, and most would also try to win Iowa.

But that still wasn't entirely clear in 1976. In that year, Senator Frank Church and Governor Jerry Brown both jumped in very late, with both competing in selected May and June primaries and in several cases winning them, in what from a distance appears to have been the most useless and futile campaigns ever. In some ways, Brown's 1976 campaign isn't entirely unlike the Chris Christie thing: Governor Moonbeam had just been elected in 1974 (for the first time), was probably a good match for activists Democrats that year on attitude if not  necessarily on issues, and was a strong contrast to the lackluster frontrunner in a year in which Democrats believed they were highly likely to win. On the other hand, Brown certainly never has had anyone question his ambition, especially for the White House, and whatever Christie is up to he's certainly not going to jump in, say, after Florida.

Again, the only point here is that I really recommend ignoring the first two, and perhaps the first three, cycles under the reformed nomination process, at least in terms of drawing any lessons for how things work now.


  1. The 1976 Democratic primary is just strange in ways that seem to have escaped historical memory. For one thing, it seems totally dominated by factional conservative-leaning candidates, to a larger degree than any post-1932 Democratic nomination. There were other candidates more in tune with the left (Udall, Church, Brown), who split the vote so none could stop Carter. Okay, but in a lot of races none of them were even remotely competitive. Carter, Scoop Jackson, and George Wallace combined for over half the vote in Massachusetts for instance. Maybe the former two candidates had more appeal to liberals than one might imagine?

    Most liberals would prefer Carter over proto-neocon Jackson today, right? Would that have been less clear in 1976? Where did all the anti-Vietnam war people go? Is there a good narrative of this campaign out there?

  2. The '76 race was the first one in which I voted -- in fact, my first-ever vote was in that year's Illinois Democratic primary -- and also the first one I followed closely. The Church and Brown campaigns looked futile even at the time, at least to anyone who wasn't wedded to older models of a nomination process. What clearly happened was that Carter got the "the big mo" from his wins, got his face on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and won Illinois (the first big industrial-state primary) fairly easily, at which point the race was effectively over. That this became the new model is attested to by the fact that "Jed Bartlet" of The West Wing followed the same path to fictional victory nearly 25 years later.

    The interesting race in '76 was on the Republican side. Although it looked pretty likely Ford would survive, it wasn't actually certain until the convention. Plus, you had Reagan promising to pick Senator Schweiker (?) or PA as his running mate. Schweiker's positions today would put probably put him to the left of the Greens.

  3. "the big mo" from his EARLY wins, I meant to say, and: promising to pick Sen. Schweiker OF Pennsylvania (Reagan was not pledging to run with the whole state). Note to self: You know better than not to proofread.


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