Jimmy Carter at the 1976 Democratic Convention

How An Outsider Courted The Establishment And Won The Nomination

Jimmy Carter’s march to the presidency between 1974–1976 was one of the biggest political upsets in American history. When Carter announced for the presidency in 1974 after serving one term as Georgia governor, a lot of people asked: “Jimmy who?” When Carter told his mother that he planned to run for president, she asked him: “President of what?” Nonetheless, Carter shrewdly perceived the public mood and ran skillfully against the dishonesty and corruption of Washington, Nixon and Watergate. He was the quintessential political outsider who took on the Democratic establishment of his time.

Carter ran against a large — but undistinguished — field of Democrats. His most significant opponents were Senators Birch Bayh, Fred Harris, Frank Church and Lloyd Bentsen. Governors George Wallace and Jerry Brown also competed for the nomination. In addition, Representative Mo Udall made a strong run. Former Vice President and then Senator Hubert Humphrey was a potential candidate hoping to be drafted as the compromise nominee.

Carter made a big splash by winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. These early wins gave Carter a big boost of momentum and boosted him to a series of victories in Florida, Pennsylvania and across the south.

By the final round of primaries on June 8, 1976, Carter was the run away front runner but due to the large field, he was likely to fall short of majority of delegates after the final round of primaries. There was talk of a brokered convention.

In 1976, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was one of America’s most prominent politicians and he controlled a large bloc of Illinois delegates. On the morning of the last primaries, Daley declared that if Carter won the crucial Ohio primary, he would throw his support to the Georgia governor.

Daley’s statement didn’t come out of the blue. Carter had been friendly with Daley since 1972 and the Georgian had been assiduously courting Daley’s support the entire year. The Democratic front runner would call Daley about every seven to ten days to advise him of the progress of his campaign without asking for an endorsement.

As it turned out, Jimmy Carter won a resounding victory in Ohio but lost the California and New Jersey primaries. On the morning of June 9, 1976, Carter had accumulated 1,260 delegates but had fallen short of the magic number of 1,505 to clinch the nomination. Once again, Mayor Daley took to the microphones, endorsed Carter and announced the Illinois delegation would be supporting Carter.

Daley’s endorsement electrified the Democratic Party. Shortly after his endorsement, Udall, Wallace and Church all endorsed Carter. As a consequence of those endorsements, Carter went over the top and clinched the nomination of a unified party.

Jimmy Carter went on to defeat incumbent Gerald Ford in the general election by a narrow margin of 297 to 241 in the electoral college and 51% to 48% in the popular vote. The election was so close that a switch of 3,687 votes in Hawaii and 5,559 votes in Ohio from Carter to Ford could’ve changed the outcome.

Jimmy Carter served one term as president before he was knocked off in his re-election bid by Ronald Reagan in 1980. A divided Democratic Party, a poor economy and the Iranian hostage crisis cost Carter the presidency. After Reagan’s victory, the Republicans held the White House for twelve years. Jimmy Carter went on to become one of the greatest ex-presidents in U.S. history.

I’m a trial lawyer, a Democratic activist and a sports fan.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store