The Battle for the South: Carter beat Wallace in Florida in 1976

Published 1:00 pm Wednesday, March 16, 2016


On March 9, 1976, with 35 percent of the vote, Jimmy Carter won the Florida primary, the first major election battle in the South. He beat Alabama Governor George Wallace who finished second with 31 percent. Though the margin was only four points, it was a huge victory for Carter. He said it was a “severe defeat” for his opponent. In fact, Carter proclaimed, “I whipped George Wallace in Florida.”
In the March 10 edition of the Americus Times-Recorder, the headline was “Carter Sweeps to Victory in Fla.” In his article, the newspaper’s managing editor Rudy Hayes wrote: “Jimmy Carter — the peanut farmer from Plains, Ga. — reaped the biggest harvest of his soaring political career Tuesday in winning the Florida presidential primary.”
Wallace tried to dismiss the loss by saying that Florida was “cosmopolitan” and “not exactly a so-called southern state.” The national media did not buy that excuse. Time magazine called it Wallace’s “first thumping in a Southern primary.” The New York Times said it was a “serious blow” to the Wallace campaign. The Washington Post’s Jules Witcover wrote that Carter was the “the man who had burst the George Wallace bubble in the South.”
Wallace was the favorite in the state contest. Four years earlier, in 1972, he had “routed all comers” in Florida. He won with 42 percent of the vote and carried all 67 counties in the state. In 1976, the former governor of Georgia bested him. While Wallace won most of the counties, winning 46, most were among the smaller, less populated counties in northern and central Florida. His most important county wins in the primary were in Duval (Jacksonville), Escambia (Pensacola), and Polk (Lakeland). “Old” Florida was still Wallace country.
Carter won 19 counties. His wins included several of the higher population counties, chiefly Hillsborough (Tampa), Pinellas (St. Petersburg), Orange (Orlando), and Palm Beach (West Palm Beach). He also prevailed in Leon (Tallahassee) and Alachua (Gainesville) counties. Much of “new,” “cosmopolitan” Florida was Carter country. There was some truth to Wallace’s post-primary assessment. In the counties he did not win, Carter came in second.
Washington Senator Henry Jackson placed third with 24 percent. His support was largely concentrated in southeast Florida where he won two counties, Broward (Fort Lauderdale) and Dade (Miami). Far back was Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp and Arizona Congressman Morris Udall with 2 percent each. Three days after the vote, Shapp was out of the race.
With the victory, Carter proved that Wallace was not invulnerable in the South; he could be beaten. But it was more consequential than that. As reported by the Americus Times-Recorder, Carter proclaimed to his supporters gathered in Orlando that the win signified the emergence of a “new South” and a “new America.” Carter ran particularly strong among black voters. He also did well among young voters, blue-collar workers, and liberals. Confidently, Carter asserted, “I don’t see anyone who can beat me” for the Democratic nomination.
Carter declared that coming in first in Florida was a goal of his campaign. It was a “crucial test” of his southern strength. By the time of Florida, Carter was the only southern alternative to Wallace. Poor showings in Mississippi and Oklahoma drove Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen from the race in early February.
According to the Americus Times-Recorder (March 8), Carter visited the state 35 times as a presidential candidate. While he would not guarantee victory in Florida, he stated, “I think I’ll finish a close second behind Wallace, and he won’t do as well as he did in 1972.” A month before the vote, Carter predicted he would earn about 35 percent.
Carter’s Florida campaign was led by Phil Wise. Once more, it benefitted from strong support from family, friends, and volunteers from Georgia. In its March 6 edition, the following was printed in the Americus Times-Recorder:
“A group of Americus and Sumter County citizens totaling 100 people left this morning by private campers and cars for an invasion of parts of Northern Florida on behalf of Jimmy Carter’s campaign for president in that state. Approximately 30 will go to Tallahassee to canvass the town and the others will be in Jackson County in the vicinity of Marianna, Fla.”
Earlier in February, the paper reported on another effort to generate support for Carter in Florida. This canvassing effort included precincts in Jacksonville.
“About 20 backers from the immediate Sumter County area joined a force of about 200 ‘Georgians for Jimmy’ as they traveled by chartered buses, in campers, autos and on motorcycles to conduct a Carter blitz into several North Florida counties, the highlight coming on Saturday when all 175 precincts in the world’s largest city area-wise were visited by the out-of-staters, along with more than 200 Floridians for Carter here.”
The Carter campaign in Florida was also helped by a five-hour telethon broadcast across the state of Georgia on Feb. 14. This project brought in $250,000 plus another $150,000 in federal matching funds. Campaign spokesperson Rex Granum said that approximately 7,000 people made pledges, most of them were from Georgia. Carter was very pleased. He said, “We can certainly use those funds in our work towards the March 9 Florida primary.” He thanked “our many Georgia friends.”
Heading into the Florida primary, Carter had demonstrated the most success. He won the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. He also won the Maine and Oklahoma caucuses. He won the Vermont primary. He finished in second behind Wallace in the Mississippi and South Carolina caucuses. Referring to his father’s strong performances in the South and outside the South, eldest son, Jack Carter explained, “We can have a southerner who can be president.”
Carter’s only real setback before Florida was finishing in fourth place in the Massachusetts primary on March 2. After winning New Hampshire, he thought he would have a decent shot at winning next door. But Carter fell short in a close, jumbled election. Jackson had his first win in 1976. Tapping into white resentment, the senator ran as the strongest anti-busing Democratic candidate, even stronger than Wallace. Carter said Jackson “exploited an issue that has racist connotations.”
However, Jackson won with only 22 percent. Udall was second with 18 percent and Wallace was third with 17 percent. Carter was a disappointing fourth with 14 percent. He expected that momentum from New Hampshire would carry him into first place in Massachusetts. Fred Harris and Sargent Shriver pulled in 8 percent and 7 percent respectively. Birch Bayh had 5 percent for seventh place, and ended his campaign two days after the primary.
In the weeks ahead in March, Carter posted big victories in the Illinois primary on March 16 and the North Carolina primary on March 23. Carter won the preference vote in Illinois with 48 percent, handily beating Wallace’s 28 percent, Shriver’s 16 percent, and Harris’ 8 percent. In North Carolina, Carter, for the first time in the Democratic race, had a majority. He defeated Wallace, 54 percent to 35, for his second primary win in the South. Carter’s opportunity to directly challenge Wallace in the Tar Heel state was made possible by the early withdrawal of former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford. Sanford, another “New South” governor, left the race on Jan. 23.
By the end of March, there was more good news for Carter. National polls began to show that Carter was the most electable Democrat. According to survey figures reported in the March 22 issue of Time magazine, Carter trailed President Gerald Ford by eight points, 46 – 38. However, in other head-to-head matchups, Ford held sizeable leads of 15 points over Hubert Humphrey (52 – 37), 23 points over Henry Jackson (53 – 30), and 39 points over Morris Udall (60 – 21).
In 1968, the Democrats lost every state of the old Confederacy except one, Texas. In 1972, the Democrats lost them all. Perhaps, with Carter, a southerner, at the top of the ticket in 1976, the South could be “solid” again and returned to the Democratic Party’s column in November. Carter started to prove that he could be that candidate with a primary victory over Wallace in Florida.

D. Jason Berggren is an associate professor of political science at Georgia Southwestern State University.