1976: With big wins in Wis. and Pa., Carter nomination more certain

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, June 8, 2016


AMERICUS — As the 1976 Democratic primary campaign entered April, Jimmy Carter continued to pace the field of presidential candidates. After winning two critical contests in April, increasingly, Carter appeared to be the only candidate who could win the Democratic Party nomination in New York City with a majority of delegates (i.e., 1,505 votes) on the first ballot. He was emerging as the Democratic presumptive nominee.
In 1976, there were only three election contests in April; the New York and Wisconsin primaries on April 6 and the Pennsylvania primary on April 27. The Americus Times-Recorder identified the April 6 primaries as “Make-or-Break”. With wins, Carter could extend his delegate lead and his momentum heading into Pennsylvania and the May-June primaries. Carter had previously won the Iowa Caucus and five primaries (New Hampshire, Vermont, Florida, Illinois, and North Carolina). The other candidates, like Washington senator Henry Jackson and Arizona representative Morris Udall, just needed to win. After Massachusetts, Jackson was seeking his second primary victory and Udall his first. In need of a big win, Jackson focused on New York and boldly predicted victory, while Carter and Udall spend most of their time in Wisconsin. Late entrants California governor Jerry Brown and Idaho senator Frank Church would not be on state primary ballots until May.
As expected, Jackson won the New York primary. However, he was well short of what he predicted. In the preference vote, according to an Associated Press count, Jackson won 36 percent; Udall finished with 29 percent. In third was Carter at 14 percent. In the separate vote for delegates, Jackson said he would win a majority of the state’s 274 convention delegates. Instead, he earned only 38 percent, or 104 delegates. Udall was second with 26 percent (70 delegates) and Carter was third with 13 percent (35 delegates). The rest were uncommitted (65 delegates).
But the real story was in Wisconsin. On election night, ABC News and NBC News projected Udall the winner of the Wisconsin primary. Udall proclaimed victory, saying, “Oh, how sweet it is.” The projection had to be retracted early the next morning, because, as the vote count proceeded, Carter closed the gap and surpassed Udall. By one percentage point, Carter ultimately won his sixth state, defeating Udall, 37 to 36 percent. Alabama governor George Wallace came in a distant third with 12 percent. Jackson had just 6 percent. Two days after the vote, after receiving 1 percent, Oklahoma senator Fred Harris dropped from the competition.
Carter’s son, Jeff, said the family was up all night watching returns. “We stayed up until 4 a.m. and we sure felt a lot better.” Reminiscent of President Harry Truman who held up a copy of the Chicago Tribune newspaper in 1948 that read, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” Carter held up a copy of the Milwaukee Sentinel paper that had as its lead story, “Carter Upset by Udall.” He told the press, “We’re No. 1. I told you I would never tell a lie. I’d rather win than lose.” Noting his come-from-behind win, the Americus Times-Recorder headline for April 7 was “Carter Winner in Dramatic Finish; Takes Wis. After Udall Called Victor.”
Carter performed well in the more conservative, rural areas of the state and among African Americans in the Milwaukee area. Carter may have also been aided by crossover Republican voters. According to NBC News, Carter won approximately 37 percent of voters who said they supported Wallace four years earlier in the 1972 Wisconsin primary. According to Harold Isaacs, author of the book, Jimmy Carter’s Peanut Brigade, 98 Georgians, including the candidate’s brother, Billy Carter, traveled to the state to provide crucial support before the April 6 vote. They canvassed the state’s largest cities (Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha, and Racine), as Isaacs wrote, “spreading the word that Carter was a man of unquestionable character, a good Christian, a good governor, and eminently qualified for the Presidency.”
In its article “Wisconsin’s Signal” published April 19, the editorial board of the Americus Times-Recorder interpreted the results of the Wisconsin primary this way:
“Although other primaries now occupy the political spotlight, the history of the 1976 Democratic nomination race is sure to rate Wisconsin a major signal.
In Wisconsin Mo Udall needed a win … very badly; his chances were best in this traditional liberal stronghold.
Yet Carter won. This has to be seen as an indication most Democrats in 1976 fear a leftwing candidate as the party standard bearer. Winning Wisconsin and getting about one to Henry Jackson’s three delegates in New York was as good as Carter could hope for April 6th. That helped his chances in Pennsylvania.
The Democratic Party has apparently turned from the left, toward center. That’s good news for Carter. That this is not the year of the left is the message Wisconsin confirmed.”
On Easter Sunday, April 18, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Campaign Headquarters officially opened at the Plains Train Depot. The depot, which quickly became a symbol of the 1976 campaign, had operated as a rail station until it closed in 1951. The building was chosen because it was available and had a restroom. Campaign volunteers renovated the old building and repainted it in the colors of the campaign: “Carter Green” and “Presidential White”. Maxine Reese served as the facility’s campaign manager.
As reported by Leila Barrett of the Americus Times-Recorder, Carter told those who attended the April 18 grand opening that he would defeat the “Stop Carter” Democratic establishment in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary. “We’ve got all the political big shots against us.” However, “I don’t intend to lose.” He then said, in November, he would “whip Gerald Ford.” It was estimated that 1,500 supporters came out for the event.
The April 27 Pennsylvania primary was the last major test of candidate strength before the race entered the final stretch in May and June. Carter anticipated a first-place showing. Jackson and Udall aimed to at least slow Carter. Both candidates recognized that a Carter win in such a large, northern industrial state could all but seal the nomination for him. In effect, Pennsylvania was the last chance for the “Stop Carter” forces to succeed.
In the preference vote, Carter came out on top with 37 percent. The headline for the Americus Times-Recorder was “Carter Wins By Wide Margin.” It was his seventh primary victory. Once again, the “Peanut Brigade” played a role in getting out the vote for Carter. It was reported that “as many as 200 of Carter’s strongest supporters” traveled to Pennsylvania the week before the primary. In the April 17 and April 23 editions, the Americus Times-Recorder listed the main cities targeted for canvassing: Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Allentown, Lancaster, York, Harrisburg, Gettysburg, and Pittsburgh. Isaacs also identified Philadelphia and Reading as areas where the Georgians campaigned.
A gaffe made earlier in the month had the potential to damage Carter’s chances, especially with black voters. During an interview with the New York Daily News, he asserted that while he was against racial discrimination he did not believe the federal government should force the integration of housing and that there was “nothing wrong with ethnic purity being maintained” in urban neighborhoods. Later, in response to a question from a CBS News reporter about what he meant, Carter said that living in such ethnically homogenous neighborhoods was “a natural inclination on the part of people” and that Washington should not integrate communities “deliberately by injecting into it a member of another race.” Moreover, to an audience in South Bend, Ind., he said that the federal government “ought not to take as a major purpose the intrusion of alien groups into a neighborhood simply to establish that intrusion.”
Concerns were immediately expressed that “ethnic purity”, “alien groups” and such were racial code words. Perhaps, the former governor of a Deep South state was playing the race card in order to appeal to Wallace voters. Udall accused Carter of precisely that, “There’s a Wallace vote out there and Carter is raising the [housing] issue to get that vote.” Sam Donaldson of ABC News asked Carter if his words were “almost Hitlerian”.
Carter said he misspoke and apologized, claiming it was “an unfortunate choice of words.” On ABC’s Issues and Answers program for April 25, he explained that he should have said, “ethnic character, heritage, or background.”
The editorial board of the Americus Times-Recorder in its April 26 article, “Jumping On Carter”, defended Carter and warned that by trying “to brand Carter a Southern bigot” the Democratic Party risked again narrowing its base and forfeiting the South in the general election. The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. stood by Carter. He said Carter supported “equal justice when it wasn’t an easy thing to be for in southern Georgia.” Furthermore, Rev. King said, “I love him and believe in him.”
Following Carter in Pennsylvania was Jackson (25 percent), Udall (19 percent), and Wallace (11 percent). Even more important, Carter also finished first in the separate vote for delegates. After the victory, both Time and Newsweek featured Carter on the front cover of their May 10 issue. Time called Pennsylvania “Jimmy’s Breakthrough” and Newsweek “Carter’s Sweep”. To many observers, the 1976 contest appeared over. Early the next morning in Plains, Carter told his many local well-wishers, “I think Jackson and Udall are through now.” On NBC’s Today show, Carter said that Pennsylvania was “the last gasp of any sort of organized stop-Jimmy Carter movement.”
ATR April 28 1976 HeadlinePennsylvania ended Jackson’s bid. On May 1, in Seattle, the senator from Washington announced, “I gave this campaign everything I had, and I believe I ran a good campaign for a good long time. But I am a realist … I lost the Pennsylvania primary. I do not have the resources to continue.” Despite the loss, Udall pressed forward until the last of the primaries in June. He said, “I still refuse to go to the cemetery.”
Carter’s impressive victory in Pennsylvania had another major impact. Surprised by Carter’s margin, the primary result convinced Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, a favorite of many liberals, not to enter the presidential race. Humphrey, the former vice president and the 1968 Democratic party presidential nominee, flirted with the possibility of joining the contest if Carter faltered and a viable path to the nomination opened. He was viewed as the liberal wing’s last hope in derailing the former Georgia governor and forcing a brokered or deadlocked convention where no candidate could reach a first ballot delegate majority. But time was running out. The filing deadlines for ballot access had passed for the remaining state primaries except New Jersey. New Jersey had its primary on June 8, the last day of the primary schedule. If Humphrey was going to make a run at Carter, he had to commit.
Carter’s decisive, double-digit Pennsylvania win on April 27 foreclosed that possibility. With no realistic way forward and Carter’s nomination looking more certain, Humphrey recognized the futility of a last minute entry. He said, “I’m not aspiring. I shall not seek it, I shall not compete for it, I shall not search for it, I shall not scramble for it.” For what would have been his fourth bid for the White House, he declared, “I shall not enter the New Jersey primary.” He added, likely fearing another losing candidacy, “One thing I don’t need at this stage of my life is to be ridiculous, so I’m not going to do it.”

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