A few weeks back, while visiting Milwaukee for work, I stopped into my favorite bookstore, Renaissance Books. A towering warehouse filled with miles of shelves lined with musty books, I like stopping in a few times a year because I’m always sure to find older works of political history and biography that can’t be found easily anywhere else. Sure enough, I found a few things destined to find their way into future posts. The treasure of my visit was a copy of the 1976 Almanac of American Politics. For political junkies—especially those who study the Congress—this is our bible. I’d never seen a copy this old (1974 was the first edition) so the past several days have been spent digging into the congressional bios of members long since gone and the voting data from the post-Watergate Democratic landslide. This is high level politics nerd-dom.
What I have found particularly interesting in my reading so far is how it described the upcoming 1976 presidential election. With the benefit of hindsight, we don’t often appreciate the uncertainty that exists a year or so out from an election. However, it was far from clear who would emerge from the chaos of the Watergate era to win the White House. Michael Barone and his co-authors' description of the potential candidates is fascinating.
For example, at the time of the book’s publication in 1975, the presumptive Democratic nominee appeared to be Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson:
…at this writing he is probably the leading candidate for the nomination. The impetus for the Jackson candidacy comes from those Democrats who are liberal on domestic policies and basically hawkish (though Jackson dislikes the word) on foreign policy. And his backers believe that Jackson has shown by his work in the Senate that he has mastered more subjects a President must understand than any other American legislator…Jackson has two majors problems as a presidential candidate: he is still not terribly well known, and he faces the implacable hostility of the portion of the Democratic Party that nominated George McGovern in 1972. At this writing, he is not known by almost half the American electorate; this will probably change in the course of the primaries, unless he runs unexpectedly poorly in the early contests. He certainly has the financial support necessary. He has already collected large sums, much of it from ardent supporters of Israel who appreciate his long record on Middle Eastern policy, much of it from businessmen who see him as a more congenial kind of politician than most liberal Democrats. The antiwar left is another matter. There are literally thousands of Democrats, including now some members of Congress, who got into politics primarily because of the opposition to the Vietnam War; why should they now support a man who was one of its major proponents?
Also given much discussion, but not much of a chance, was Alabama Governor (and 1968 and 1972 candidate) George Wallace. Reflecting on the Alabaman’s journey, including the 1972 attempt on his life, Barone writes:
No one doubts that he wants to run for President; it appears now that for all his primary runs and third party candidacies he has been seeking a way fro a one-time vocal segregationist to make it to the White House. Wallace has managed to raise literally millions in small contributions through direct mail, and he has enough hard core support—augmented, if anything by the respectability conferred by martyrdom—to run ahead of all other Democratic presidential possibilities in early 1975. But even more Democrats find Wallace totally unacceptable and would back anyone in the general election against him, even Gerald Ford; for all his talk of how he reflects the people’s real views, Wallace is clearly the weakest candidate the Democrats could nominate. And of course they won’t.
Also garnering attention, Arizona congressman Mo Udall:
Udall has not yet raised anything like the amount of money a presidential candidate is thought to need, and of course his name recognition is about zero. But he does have certain advantages: most notably, after the withdrawals of Edward Kennedy and Walter Mondale, there is a dearth of candidates acceptable to the liberal wing which dominated the Democratic convention in 1972 and may well again in 1976. Udall is at least acceptable to that group.
Where, you might ask, is Jimmy Carter, the eventual nominee and winner in 1976? Barone et al, less than a year before the beginning of the nomination contests, have very little to say about the former Georgia governor, and don’t seem to view his as a top tier candidate. Writing about his rise in Georgia political circles and election to the governorship in 1970, they state:
During his campaign, in which he shook tens of thousands of hands, Carter liked to describe himself as a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. He placed somewhat less emphasis on the fact that he had served as a top aide to Admiral Hyman Rickover in the nuclear submarine program, and that his peanut farm was not a shack-and-forty-acres affair but a well-managed, thriving business. Carter lost the Atlanta metropolitan area in both the primary and general election; but surprised some of his erstwhile supporters by coming out foresquare for integration…Now he is running for President, vowing that he will go into all the primaries; barring a major upset of George Wallace, it looks like a uphill race.
Thus, on the eve of the Democratic nominating process, it was virtually impossible to predict who would ultimately emerge victorious. It’s important, I think, to appreciate how hard it is to predict the way events, especially electoral and political, will play out. To maybe put this into a more contemporary perspective, try to go back to the recent editions of the Almanac or its competitor “Politics in America” and find anyone making a convincing argument about Barack Obama’s chances of becoming President. Momentum can develop very quickly in American politics.
As a final note, check out this snippet, written almost in passing, in the section on Arkansas in the ’76 Almanac:
Arkansas seems full of young, fairly liberal, personally attractive Democratic politicians these days—a type that simply was not around in the days before Winthrop Rockefeller (although, ironically, none is in Rockefeller’s Republican Party). There are Bumpers and Pryor, of course, and state Attorney General Jim Guy Tucker and Congressman Ray Thornton and almost successful congressional candidate Bill Clinton.