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“I am a candidate for reelection”; President Carter Enters 1980 Race

By:  David Berggren

Four decades ago, on December 4, 1979, Jimmy Carter formally announced that he was a Democratic candidate for president in 1980. “I formally declare that I am a candidate for reelection as President of the United States of America.”

Carter spoke in the East Room of the White House before family, staff, cabinet officials, and campaign supporters. He was confident he would win. Emphatically, he declared, “I intend to be renominated.”

In addition, he made it clear that Vice President Walter Mondale would be running with him on the ticket for a second term. He said, “I intend to be renominated by the Democratic Party, and I intend to ask the Democratic Convention to renominate the most effective Vice President in the history of the United States—Walter Mondale. We intend to lead the Democratic Party to victory next year, and we also intend to lead the Nation in continuing the good work which all of us have begun together.”

Carter admitted that his presidency was not perfect and that he has improved as a leader. “As President, I have had to make some very difficult decisions, and I expect to make some more. I’ve made some mistakes, and I have learned from them. I’ve fought some bitter fights against selfish special interests, and I expect to go on leading the fight for the common good of the American people. I carry some scars, and I carry them with pride.”

Nevertheless, he believed he was the most prepared to take the country forward. He pledged, “With the support of the American people, I propose to carry on the struggle for a secure nation, for a just society, and for a peaceful world—and I intend to carry on this struggle as President of the United States.”

Local supporters held an announcement party for President Carter at the Best Western Motel in Americus. The event was organized by P.J. Wise and Maxine Reese. “We want to show our appreciation of the President and the fact that he is from our county by showing our support to the fullest,” explained Mr. Wise to the Americus Times-Recorder (Nov. 19).

Tickets to commemorate “the day that the Sumter Countian will see re-election to the presidency” were sold in Sumter, Schley, and Webster counties. They went for $25 a couple. Approximately 500 guests were expected to attend.

December 5th Americus Times-Recorder

According to the Americus Times-Recorder (Dec. 5), “more than 700” showed up to support Carter. “The Best Western Motel,” wrote Rudy Hayes, “was packed with wall-to-wall people who jammed two banquet rooms and a barroom.” Several members of the Carter family were present, including brother Billy Carter, his wife Sybil, and first cousin and Ga. state senator, Hugh Carter. Other announcement parties were held in private homes and at venues across Georgia and the United States to mark the start of the 1980 reelection effort.

That night, Carter reiterated many of the same points he made earlier in the day at the White House in a five-minute videotaped address aired on television by CBS.

 

Despite his confidence and his assurance of victory, Carter began his Dec. 4 remarks by acknowledging that his reelection campaign was not starting under the best circumstances. At the time, more than fifty Americans were being held hostage by Islamic revolutionaries in Iran who had stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4. “I speak to you this afternoon at a somber time. Fifty Americans continue to be held captive in Iran, hostages of a mob and a government that have become one and the same. This crisis, precipitated by this unlawful and unprecedented act, has demanded my closest attention since the first moment that it began.”

Given the stark difficulties facing the country, Carter decided that, at least for the time being, he would not be actively engaging in electoral politics while the hostage situation continued. He thought it was more appropriate to act presidential and remain at the White House to monitor events in Iran. Being president and carrying out the duties of president were more critically important than running for president. This was known as the “Rose Garden” strategy.

 

Candidate filing deadlines in various states prompted Carter’s decision to declare when he did. A formal candidate declaration was necessary in order to appear on state primary ballots.

 

Politically speaking, 1980 was not 1976. In the previous election cycle, Carter was a Washington outsider and an unknown, long-shot candidate for the nomination. Then he was one of the first candidates to declare and he launched his candidacy more than a year in advance of the first contest in Iowa. This time, as the incumbent president, he was a known figure and the ultimate Washington insider. This time, he was the last of the Democrats to enter the race and the first contest in Iowa was only a little more than a month away.

 

In 1979, President Carter was not a lock for winning the Democratic Party nomination. His job approval, according to the Gallup Organization, had been as low as 28 percent in the summer. Among self-identified Democrats, his level of approval was an anemic 34 percent.

 

At the time of the Dec. 4 candidate announcement, Edward Kennedy was already in the race to challenge Carter and he was the actual favorite to win. At one point, Kennedy was favored 2 – 1 among Democrats.

 

The Massachusetts Senator, who led the liberal wing of the party, entered the race on Nov. 7.  In his announcement speech from Boston, Kennedy accused Carter of being indecisive and weak. He said that he possessed a different view of the presidency – “a forceful, effective presidency, in the thick of the action, at the center of all the great concerns our people share.” It was to be a bitter primary fight, and it would severely wound Carter politically and his chances for a second term.

 

California Governor Jerry Brown, one of Carter’s primary opponents in 1976, entered the race on Nov. 8. Before the National Press Club, he criticized the leadership in Washington for being “simply inadequate to steer the ship of state.”

 

With the American hostage crisis in Iran, President Carter experienced a significant rally effect in public opinion, and the rally was well underway by the time of the Dec. 4 announcement. According to Gallup, his job approval among all Americans jumped nineteen points, from 32 percent to 51 percent, since the beginning of the November 1979. Among Democrats, his level of approval increased twenty-two points, from 40 percent to 62 percent.

 

Carter’s standing in the 1980 Democratic race also greatly improved. By the time of his December announcement, Kennedy’s lead had virtually evaporated. In an ABC News / Harris poll, Kennedy’s national lead was only four points over the President, 44 – 40 percent. Governor Brown trailed far back with 10 percent. When Democrats and Independents were combined, Carter pulled ahead of Kennedy. Even so, Carter pollster Patrick Caddell insisted that the President remained the underdog.

 

The next week Carter surged passed Kennedy. In a Gallup survey, conducted on Dec. 7 – 9, Carter managed to gain an eight-point lead over his Democratic rival, 48 – 40 percent. Survey respondents were especially supportive of the President’s handling of the hostage matter.

 

An editorial by the Americus Times-Recorder for Nov. 26 captured the changing electoral fortunes for the President. It read, “Nothing quite succeeds in drawing a nation together as well as a crisis. The growing abuse of the United States and its citizens by the despotic rulers of Iran … has done the trick. Actions taken by President Carter so far … have brought praise from his fellow countrymen.” Carter’s crisis leadership, the editors wrote, “could submerge the Kennedy candidacy.”

 

Kennedy’s attacks on Carter during a time of crisis and renewed patriotism may have backfired. Iran, for instance, used Kennedy’s criticisms in its propaganda efforts against the United States. The moment made the senator look small, petty, unprepared, and unnecessarily divisive. The Americus Times-Recorder published on the frontpage an example of Iran’s propagandic use of Kennedy on Dec. 8.

 

Doubts about Kennedy’s presidential fitness likely remained following the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident that involved a car accident and the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne. The senator was the driver of the car and he failed to immediately report what happened to the police. The incident raised all sorts of questions as to his electability.

 

For the Republicans, Ronald Reagan, the former two-term governor of California, was the clear frontrunner to win the party nomination. George H.W. Bush, the former CIA director, and John Connally, a former governor of Texas, were also declared candidates and Reagan’s main challengers. Although there were other candidates in the running, including Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, the Americus Times-Recorder (Dec. 4) referred to Reagan, Bush, and Connally as “the Big Three”.

Later in the month, another international event added to Carter’s foreign policy woes. On Dec. 27, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; it represented only the latest in communist “adventurism” in Asia. Carter felt betrayed and vowed to punish the Soviets.

 

The Soviet military action effectively marked the end to détente and the progress on nuclear arms control between the two superpowers. At the time, the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT II) was before the U.S. Senate for consideration. The arms agreement was signed by Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at the June 1979 summit in Vienna, Austria.

 

The seriousness of the issue was documented on the front page of the Americus Times-Recorder. Headlines included “Afghanistan Coup is Reported” (Dec. 27, 1979), “Carter Urges Nations to Speak Against Reds” (Dec. 27), “Soviets Step Up Afghan Fighting” (Dec. 31), “Détente Appears Dead, Carter Loses Faith in Soviets” and “Carter Accuses Brezhnev of Lying” (Jan. 1, 1980), “Due to Soviet Action, SALT Appears Dead Now” (Jan. 4), and “Carter’s Retaliation to Hurt the Russians” (Jan. 5).

 

The crisis in central Asia reinforced Carter’s earlier decision to not actively campaign for his party’s nomination. As noted in a Jan. 2 article, “Carter Personal Campaigning on Hold During Iran Crisis,” he stated, “I cannot break away from my duties here which are extraordinary now and ones which only I can fulfill.” If this cost him politically, he said, “We will just have to take the adverse political consequences and make the best of it.” He added that he can best fulfill his presidential responsibilities “if I forego personal appearances or participation in events which are exclusively part of a partisan political campaign.”

This decision to remain at the White House involved pulling out of the scheduled Jan. 7 presidential debate in Iowa with Kennedy and Brown. As reported by the Associated Press, “tensions with Iran” was cited as the reason for Carter’s withdrawal. Quoted in a Dec. 29 article, “Carter Calls Off Debate,” the President added that his decision was done “with the firm belief that it is in the best interest of the country” for him not to participate.

 

Senator Kennedy subsequently canceled his appearance. The Democratic challenger said he was “very disappointed” with Carter’s move. The Brown campaign charged that the President was simply avoiding accountability and using the Iranian crisis to justify it. The Des Moines Register, Iowa’s leading newspaper, had been sponsored the debate and CBS had planned to cover it.

 

Neither did Carter come home for Christmas. Instead, he observed the holiday with First Lady Rosalynn Carter and daughter Amy at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. They had Christmas dinner with military families. It was reported that the President’s mother was disappointed that the family was not together for Christmas. Still, her son called her three times that day.

 

The Americus Times-Recorder reported the President’s decision to remain near Washington for the holidays on Dec. 21: “President Jimmy Carter’s hometown relatives and friends in Plains had already been making preparations for arrival of their favorite son for Christmas, but alas the Iranian crisis caused the president to opt for spending the holidays at the White House and Camp David.” The decision forced two White House staffers in Americus preparing for the President’s arrival to return to Washington.

 

In 1977 and 1978, the Carters came to Plains for Christmas. They spent Christmas morning with the President’s mother at the Pond House both times and then visited the home of Mrs. Allie Smith, the President’s mother-in-law. In 1977, Christmas fell on a Sunday and the First Family visited both Plains Baptist Church and Maranatha Baptist Church for religious services. In 1978, they went fishing in Webster County. Both years, at different points during the day, President Carter took the questions from the press.

 

While Carter may have decided not to actively campaign for the moment, his family and his loyal supporters most certainly did. The Americus Times-Recorder, for example, published an article on Dec. 20 entitled, “Female Carters Lead Re-election Campaign” that noted the fact that the First Lady made several trips to Iowa on behalf of her husband. Mrs. Lillian Carter and Vice President Mondale visited the state, too, to rally support. Mrs. Carter and the Vice President attended campaign fundraising dinners. Other pro-Carter surrogates campaigned in key states for the President.

 

In November and December 1979, the Peanut Brigade began to mobilize as it had four years earlier when it helped Carter win the crucial early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Florida that launched him toward the nomination and ultimately the presidency. Local volunteers were recruited to join the reelection campaign. As in 1976, Iowa and New Hampshire were the prime campaign targets.

 

The Americus Times-Recorder identified Mr. John Pope as one of the local organizers of the 1980 Carter-Mondale Peanut Brigade (Dec. 7; Dec. 28). Pope said that the group was first heading to New Hampshire, site of the first-in-the nation primary, to campaign for about a week before Christmas. The group consisted of twenty-one locals, included Mr. Pope and his wife, Betty.

 

Later, the group planned to go to Iowa to “contact registered Democratic voters in a ‘people to people’ campaign” for ten days leading up to the Jan. 21 caucuses. They knocked on doors, distributed campaign literature, and encouraged voters to come out to the caucuses and express their preference for the President.

 

After Iowa, the group was looking to travel back to New Hampshire in advance of the Feb. 26 primary. Members of the Peanut Brigade traveled at their own expense, responsible for their own air, food, and lodging. It was considered an effective exercise in grassroots politics. It worked for Carter in 1976; perhaps, it would again in 1980.