Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nutty Supporters

We have already detailed the primary election procession through which “wild card” former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter clinched the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in 1976. But what allowed this under-funded, virtual unknown from the Deep South to place first in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire? A recent accession to the Russell Library’s collections inspired this latest question and post.

Vital to Carter’s early successes were a dedicated group of fellow Georgians who volunteered their time and money to converge on snowy small towns in these two states, launching a truly grassroots hearts-and-minds campaign of personal contact and one-on-one persuasion. These volunteers were known as the Peanut Brigade.

Left: Our newest accession - a genuine Peanut Brigade shirt, ca. 1975. The phrase "Another Nut for Carter" appears above a caricature of the candidate, his body a stylized peanut shell.

Carter’s campaign was particularly concerned about New Hampshire, traditional starting point for successful Democratic presidential efforts. Estes Kefauver’s victory in the state’s 1952 primary forced a sitting President out of the race, as did Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in 1968, while Edwin Muskie’s tearful New Hampshire speech in 1972 likely cost him the nomination. The state was not known for its openness to candidates from the Deep South. Carter set up a New Hampshire presence early on, spending significant time there with family and supporters as early as 1975. Recalling the tremendous efforts of the Peanut Brigade, Carter’s son Chip recalled:

“They went to Iowa and New Hampshire and, you know, everywhere you went you met people who have met people in the Peanut Brigade. And it was a real phenomenal effort and totally different from anything anybody had done before. A lot of people copied it afterwards, and people somewhat copied it then.”

In his book Stormy Weather: The New Hampshire Primary and Presidential Politics, author Dante J. Scala recounts the tactics of the Brigade. He writes, “…its members were a varied group—professional people, lawyers, doctors, and housewives—and that helped them to get a fair hearing when they knocked on people’s doors.” He further suggests that Carter’s Aunt Sissy, who journeyed to New Hampshire once a month to talk with locals about her favorite nephew, was the candidate’s best secret weapon.

Carter’s top campaign operatives, including future White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan, sought to carve out a supporter niche that would move him to the top of an eight-candidate field in the Granite State. They reasoned that with conservative Alabama Governor George Wallace not mounting any serious effort in the state (opting instead to focus on neighboring Massachusetts, where he would pursue the votes of disaffected Boston-area whites opposed to busing as a means of school desegregation), Carter had the party’s moderate-conservative bloc to himself in New Hampshire.

While the candidate sought to shake every hand and kiss every baby in sight, Peanut Brigadiers were organized most pointedly in blue-collar industrial or fishing towns with large numbers of aged New Deal Democrats and socially conservative members of the working class and manufacturing base. Volunteer recruitment and door-to-door canvassing on Carter’s behalf were noticeably more concentrated, therefore, in the southernmost counties of the state whereas liberal favorite Morris Udall focused his efforts on the progressive-minded towns closer to Canada and Vermont. New Hampshire primaries still tend to break along these demographic lines, with Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2008 both winning the state using a regional focus similar to Carter’s.

Beyond mere strategy, the Peanut Brigade’s work in New Hampshire provides a definitive example of the kind of “retail politics” that campaigns claim to—but rarely do—wage in early primary states. That Carter’s supporters were able to parlay sustained personal outreach into key wins for their candidate should give pause to those cynics who deny the importance of voter contact in favor of pure fundraising prowess in securing an election victory.

Our newest accession will go on display in our brand new galleries at the New Special Collections Building in February 2012! Hope to see you there...

1 comment:

peanutbutterjellytime said...

i love this post and WANT that t-shirt!