Thursday, September 08, 2016

Favorite Son: Part II

In anticipation of the November 2016 presidential election, the Russell Library’s Access and Outreach staff has been working on an exhibit, On the Stump: What Does it Take to Get Elected in Georgia? opening September 2nd in the Harrison Feature Gallery. The exhibit considers the evolution of campaigning for state office and asks visitors to imagine life on the campaign trail. This post is one in a series exploring political slang and its role in elections.

In the second installment of our two-part feature, we recount the campaign of the only Georgian ever elected President of the United States: Jimmy Carter. How did Carter transform his deep-fried Dixie image, turning it from a liability into his greatest strength in ’76? Let's see...

By the time of Jimmy Carter’s presidential bid in 1976, times had changed. Though Carter had just finished a term as Georgia’s governor, he was largely unknown on the national scene. Hoping to avoid the regional pigeonholing that had plagued Russell and others from the region, Carter sought endorsements from prominent black politicians, deemphasized his center-right ideological record as governor, and focused on his image as a fresh face with strong ethical credentials. In the post-Watergate political milieu, this marketing proved effective. In the end, his southern personae proved not only palatable but refreshing, helping him to win over voters.

Above: Photo of woman at the Democratic National Convention in New York City, 1976. Democratic Party of Georgia Records, Russell Library.

By the time of his presidential bid in 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter—Georgia governor from 1970-74—emerged from relative obscurity against a bevy of more experienced and nationally prominent politicians. Along with a slew of Senators, competitors included Arizona Representative Morris Udall, Alabama Governor and 1968 third-party presidential nominee George Wallace and 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominee Sargent Shriver. The only candidate less established than Carter was 37-year-old California Governor Jerry Brown who took up the mantle of “maverick liberal” from the West as part of his strategy against a large diverse contention.

Carter wanted to avoid the regional pigeonholing that had plagued past hopefuls from the Deep South, including Georgia’s own Richard Russell 24 years prior. He was especially wary of seeming like a mild-mannered clone of fellow Southerner Wallace, who had made his name obstructing civil rights laws and promoting segregation in the 1960s. Toward this end, Carter sought the endorsements of prominent black politicians and de-emphasized his center-right ideological record as governor, instead focusing on his image as a “fresh face” with unquestioned ethical credentials.

In the post-Watergate political milieu, this marketing proved effective; Carter startled forecasters by placing second only to “uncommitted” in the Iowa caucuses, with 28 percent of the vote. More shockingly, Carter polled the same in New Hampshire, besting Shriver’s 8 percent. The party establishment was stunned a largely untested candidate from Dixie could win in New England. Carter would win another New England state, Vermont, the next week, though he placed fourth in Massachusetts the same day.

Above: This depicts the "Somebody for President '76 Bandwagon" being driven by a Democratic donkey holding a "Georgia Democratic Forum on Candidates and Issues" sign. Jimmy Carter and Morris Udall are pulling the bandwagon while Milton Shapp, Sargent Shriver, Fred Harris and Birch Bayh are pushing it. Clifford H. (Baldy) Baldowski Editorial Cartoons, Russell Library.

Carter more or less knocked Wallace out of the race after March victories in Florida, Illinois, and North Carolina, establishing himself as the Southern candidate while still beating a nationally popular drumbeat of clean government. By the start of April, Carter’s main threat was Udall, who drew support from constituencies with whom Carter was having trouble “closing the deal”—social liberals in Northern and Western states, many suspicious that Carter was some kind of stalking horse for the party’s old-line Dixiecrat wing. But Carter managed to best Udall in such reputedly liberal places as Wisconsin, D.C., and Connecticut. By then, two more candidates appealing to the “Anyone but Carter” movement, Church and Brown, entered the race and accrued victories in Nebraska, Maryland, and Nevada, while Carter held firm to his Southern base and edged past Udall in labor-heavy Michigan. By then, Carter’s lead in delegates was all but insurmountable even as Church and Brown showed signs of life out West.

Left: Jimmy Carter at a campaign event, 1970. Democratic Party of Georgia Records, Russell Library.

Coming at the tail end of a two-decade period of desegregation and advances in both racial and gender equality, Carter’s victory in claiming the Democratic nomination could be seen as a sign that the dominance of Northern “machine” Democrats had faded. Alternatively, it could have shown that Southerners could win nationwide office in the 1970s by running positive, candidate-focused efforts and overtly eschewing offensive “dog whistle politics.” In any case,Georgia’s native son Jimmy Carter unseated President Gerald Ford in a close election with 50 percent of the popular vote, securing 297 electoral votes.

As in many of the Democratic primaries, Carter dominated the South, losing only one state of the old Confederacy (Virginia). Carter also ran well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, roughly splitting the industrial Northeast and Midwest with Ford (a native of Michigan) and winning such crucial states as New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Just as before, he was weakest west of the Rockies, winning only Hawaii

Want to find out more? Visit On the Stump on display in the Harrison Feature Gallery in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries from September 2, 2016 through August 18, 2017. The Russell Library gallery is free and open to the public weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. For more information, email or call 706-542-5788

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