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How The Rally Around The Flag Phenomenon Saved Jimmy Carter’s Re-Nomination

By 1979, Jimmy Carter was a beleaguered president whose re-election bid appeared to be nearly hopeless. Both inflation and interest rates were at unprecedented double digit levels while unemployment rose. It was called stagflation. It was the worst economy in the U.S. at the time since the Great Depression.

In June 1979, an ABC News/Harris poll showed that Carter had an approval rating of 30% and a disapproval rating of 53%. A month later, the same polling company indicated that Ted Kennedy led Carter by a 61% to 33% margin on a national basis. (Interestingly enough, at about the same time, Kennedy led Ronald Reagan by a margin of 55% to 40% in Reagan’s own internal polls. )

President Carter appeared to many Americans to be in over his head and his attempts to instill confidence fell flat. In the midst of this economic tumult, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter held a summit at Camp David in which they queried American leaders from business, labor, education, politics and religion about what they believed was wrong with the country.

After about two weeks at Camp David, Carter returned to Washington and gave his notorious “malaise” speech in which he blamed a crisis of confidence for America’s problems. (Carter never mentioned the word “malaise” in this speech but he used it at a subsequent town hall meeting.) Initially, Carter’s approval ratings went up by up 11 points but those numbers evaporated when he fired 6 out of 12 cabinet members.

Due to Carter’s dismal poll standing, Kennedy appeared poised to run away with the Democratic nomination and maybe even the presidency — but then disaster struck for the Massachusetts Senator. On November 4, 1979, Kennedy gave an interview to Roger Mudd that turned out to be a fiasco for him. Kennedy couldn’t give a coherent explanation about why he wanted to be president or about the infamous Chappaquiddick car accident.

On the same date, Iranian militants invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and seized fifty two American hostages. Three days later on November 7, 1979, Ted Kennedy announced his presidential bid in in the shadow of this crisis.

The Kennedy campaign roll out continued to be a disaster. He still lacked a rationale for his candidacy and he criticized Carter for allowing the Shah of Iran to get cancer treatment in the U.S. Kennedy also proved (initially) to be a poor campaigner.

By December 1979, the rally around the flag effect caused Carter’s formerly dismal approval ratings to double to 60% approval. In addition, by January 1980, Carter led Kennedy 66% to 24% on a national basis in the Yankelovich poll.

Due to that huge polling bounce, Carter won landslide victories over Kennedy in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Carter went on to win 12 out of the first 17 primaries by April 22, 1980. By then, Carter had mounted an insurmountable delegate lead over Kennedy.

Then disaster struck for the U.S. and the Carter campaign. On April 24, 1980, the Iranian hostage rescue mission failed with the loss of eight American heroes. Carter made a mournful statement on national television accepting full responsibility for the failure of the mission.

Carter’s approval ratings began a sharp and permanent decline after the failure of the rescue mission. By May 1980, Carter’s approvals declined to 42% approve and 44% disapprove. By the general election cycle, Carter’s approval ratings were in the high 30s and were around 37% on election day in November.

Despite his low approval ratings, the general election was close until just before the election. Unfortunately, the bottom dropped out for President Carter beginning over the last weekend before the election. The undecided voters broke heavily for Reagan.

On the night before the election Carter finished a late night rally in Portland. Carter received a warm welcome from the crowd and was feeling confident about his chances. His campaign had yet to learn about the changing electorate.

On the flight from Portland to Plains, Georgia, Carter’s campaign pollster, Patrick Caddell, called the staff on Air Force One to give them the bad news that Carter was trailing by as much as ten points. At 4 AM, Carter was patched into the phone call with Caddell. The dramatic phone call went as follows:

Carter: What’s happening?

Caddell: Well, Mr. President, it’s gone.

Caddell then advised Carter that Reagan was leading by anywhere from 7 to 10 points.

As it turned out, Carter’s re-nomination in 1980 was a bit of a fluke. In the absence of the Iran hostage crisis, Ted Kennedy probably would have won the nomination. It’s possible that Kennedy could’ve won the presidency in light of the desire of the electorate for change that year. We will never know.

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

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