Thursday, April 7, 2011


I'm still waiting for the third installment of Nate Silver's mega-look at early presidential polling. I should note that I go in skeptical, but either way I'm enjoying the series (part one, part two) quite a lot, since there's lots of good nomination history here and Silver's comments are always interesting, even when I don't agree.

That said, I'll start off by really questioning his claim that the 1976 Democratic nomination field is similar to the current GOP crop. Why?
But all of them seemed flawed in some way, including the nominal frontrunner, George Wallace, who would have been an extremely problematic general-election nominee. Meanwhile, quite a few of the well-known Democrats declined to run. The candidate who eventually emerged was Jimmy Carter, who had only 1 percent of the support in early polls.
I'm not sure I see this at all. First, the "did not run" group in 1976 was really, really strong, particularly Ted Kennedy (who almost knocked off a sitting Democratic president the next time around) and Hubert Humphrey, probably too old by then but a former VP, nominee, and three-time candidate. There's really no one like that in the Republican Party at all right now.

Second, I'm not sure on what basis Mo Udall, Birch Bayh, Frank Church, Fred Harris, or Sargent Shriver were "flawed in some way." Jerry Brown, too. Sure, George Wallace was clearly going to be vetoed by mainstream liberals, as was Scoop Jackson (I think; I really don't recall exactly how hawkish Jackson was running as at the time). But the others were, unless I'm forgetting something, mainstream Democrats with good liberal credentials, each of whom would make a plausible nominee. The makes seven plausible nominees who entered the primaries without, as far as I know, a serious flaw as far as nomination politics are concerned.

In the event, 1976 was just a bizarre nomination season, as Democrats hadn't quite learned yet how to organize themselves within the new system, and Jimmy Carter basically lucked into the nomination as a personal factional candidate. So even if the field was similar, it wouldn't really tell us much about the 2012 Republican process. But I just don't see it as similar at all.


  1. I don't remember how Scoop Jackson ran, either, but if you knew his name you knew he was a hawk. That reputation was cemented maybe a decade earlier.

  2. Having reached the age to vote for the first time in 1976 I can attest that 1976 has absolutely nothing in common with 2012. 1976 represented the first election after the resignation of Nixon.

    Gerald Ford has pardoned Nixon and basically Jimmy Carter represented someone totally out of left field....he was the definitive "anti-Washington" candidate.

  3. Yes, Carter was the "anti-Washington" candidate, but he was also the candidate the Washington media loved. Not necessarily personally, but in terms of the storyline he allowed them to tell that year, after all the corruption of the Nixon administration and the unhappiness with Ford's pardon of Nixon. That story was; voters reject beltway corruption by electing unknown outsider. 1976 was the first campaign in which I became aware that the media was, none too subtlely, very committed to pushing a particular storyline, come what may. A storyline in which just one candidate had the attributes to fit the starring role. When Mo Udall won the New Hampshire primary, but the press immediately dismissed his win, ignored him, and made the story all about Carter's second place showing, it shocked me. That was the first, and so far I think the only, race in which the media and its narrative preferences played a decisive part in determining who got the nomination and most likely even who won the general election.

    Since then, I think there have been other races where the media has pushed a certain, preferred narrative. But with perhaps the exception of Gore in 2000 (they really wanted Gore to suffer for Clinton's sins), they haven't been able to replicate what I believe they did accomplish in 1976.

  4. Anonymous, I think you're spot on. The fact that 1976 was the first post-reform primary allowed that to happen. Now that the party elites know how this works, it's harder for that to occur. 2000 may have been that way, but it's hard to know. Now, I think, they do have influence on primaries, in that it comes down to how much the party elites buy-in to the narrative. 2008 between Obama and Clinton comes to mind.

  5. Anon,

    I'm afraid your memory is wrong; Carter beat Udall in NH. Perhaps you're thinking about Iowa, where "undeclared" won and Carter finished 2nd, and the press called Carter the winner (which wasn't about pro-Carter bias, but about wanted any winner to talk about). Also, phat, FWIW 1976 was the 2nd post-reform cycle, but I agree with most of what you say there.

  6. Nate was much too gentle with Wallace, even if he was no longer the mouth-breathing anti-segregation racist firebrand of the 1960s. He was still easily the most conservative of the bunch (including Scoop), had his nasty past which Dems, particularly blacks, hadn't forgotten, plus he was partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair ('72 assass'n attempt). His name rec and a narrow following gave him decent polling numbers at the outset, but the guy was never going to get the nom.

    And Nate also somewhat unfairly downgrades the rest of the field by putting them into the same "flawed" category as Wallace. They were flawed only in the sense that we're all flawed. In fact, it was one of the best fields Ds have ever had -- even stronger if a few of them hadn't waited so long to jump in.

    Fred Harris and Birch Bayh particularly stand out, the first a liberal from OK (with an attractive Native Am wife) who'd defeated a famous, wildly successful OU football coach in a football crazy state. (check out his interview ca 1971 on the Dick Cavett Show on YT -- that guy had the goods)

    And Birch Bayh: I think he got started late, but wow, what a record of accomplishment, and bold strokes, in the senate. Right up there, or surpassing, the record of Ted Kennedy imo.

    Jerry Brown: Iirc, the Moonbeam tag came after this race. In '76, his "flaw" might have been that the press deemed he was running too soon after achieving high office (one year only as CA gov) and so looked too ambitious, plus he was still only in his 30s.

    Mo Udall: his "flaw" from the perspective of the MSM might have been he was just a congressman (not normally the position from which to run for prez), and perhaps was seen as too liberal.

    Jimmy: agree the MSM liked him in the primaries (less so in the gen'l election). A moderate, he was supposed to represent The New South and an upcoming generation of enlightened pols on race and social issues. See, e.g., a cover story on Jimmy from Time magazine as he took office as GA gov (ca 1971) where the editors wildly tout him as something like "the South's JFK." When he was deemed to have "won" the '76 IA caucuses and thereby to have become the pol to beat in the race -- due largely to the FP story about him in the NYT by one Johnny Apple -- IA officially became very important, and Jimmy received a huge PR advantage over his opponents.

    1976, the first post-Watergate presidential election, was an opportunity missed by liberal Dems, imo . And because so many liberals ended up splitting their support among several worthies, we ended up with a nominee who was a little too unknown and a little more conservative than was necessary in the political climate of those times.

  7. Sorry, the above remarks re Wallace should read "anti-integration."

    And re this comment by Anon above

    That was the first, and so far I think the only, race in which the media and its narrative preferences played a decisive part in determining who got the nomination and most likely even who won the general election.

    You should check out the media coverage of the 1968 race, particularly the general election Nixon vs Humphrey. The Dem was hammered (including from the lib wing of his own party to be sure), primarily over the VN War, while his opponent, refusing to debate, held only well-controlled "town hall" sessions along with the usual stump speeches. Very few if any major pressers, except to talk briefly with a reporter deemed not hostile. Said he had a plan to end the war, but couldn't go into details as it might jeopardize then-ongoing peace talks in Paris. And the press largely bought this, didn't come close to covering him in the largely negative way they did HHH, and the rest is history.


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