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13 October 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:08pm

From the NS archive: The battle for the mythical middle

21 March 1980: Carter versus Kennedy for the Democratic leadership.

By Claudia Wright

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter was confronted by a challenge from the liberal wing of his Democratic party from Ted Kennedy. Carter was in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis and a stagnant economy with rising inflation, yet he managed to see off Kennedy to fight Ronald Reagan for the presidency – where he lost in a landslide. Claudia Wright, the magazine’s astute Washington correspondent, looked at the Carter and Kennedy campaigns and divined why Kennedy would fail even when up against a weakened Carter. The answer was not the Chappaquiddick taint but money, advertising and organisation. She was proved right.


After a particularly gory battle with the Romans at Asculum, the Greek King Pyrrhus exclaimed, as is widely remembered: “One more such victory and we are lost.” From this point on, Pyrrhus gave his name to a contest whose victory is won at too great a cost. For future presidential contests, it may well be that Carter’s name will describe a victory that is achieved despite apparent losses every step along the way. Carter has turned Pyrrhus on his head.

Consider these examples. Two weeks after announcing a grain embargo against the Soviet Union, which threw into sudden doubt the planting and financial prospects of corngrowers, Carter achieved a two-to-one victory over Kennedy in the corn-growing state of Iowa. In New Hampshire, a state which relies almost entirely for home heating and electricity on imported Middle Eastern oil, and which vehemently opposed Carter’s abandonment last year of oil price controls, Democratic electors voted for the President over Kennedy, who had offered to reinstate price controls and increase home heating subsidies. Despite wide disbelief of Carter’s disavowal of the United States vote against Israeli settlements at the UN Security Council, the President was able to trounce Kennedy in the Florida primary, where Jewish voters make up a substantial proportion of the electorate.

What kind of a contest is this, when the President appears more indomitable with each new fumble or fall, as inflation accelerates to record highs, and his foreign policy moves suffer what are, from the American point of view, unprecedented rebuffs? Can it ever have happened before that a President managed to defeat his opponent in every single regional, ethnic, and class group of the Democratic party, and yet, collectively, they turn around and stop just short of condemning his performance as President (approval in late February among registered Democrats was a slim 45 per cent to 42 per cent)?

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The paradox of Carter’s position is that he has appeared both so strong (compared to Kennedy and Brown on the Democratic Side, and Reagan, Bush, and the other Republican candidates), and yet so weak (compared to former President Gerald Ford) that Ford was almost forced into the race – kept out only by the lateness of the primary schedule, and by Reagan’s considerable grip at this stage. Since disapproval of Carter’s performance among Republicans is sharp – 79 per cent to 16 per cent – it is clear that a majority of voters in the nation think rather poorly of the man who, the polls also confirm cannot be defeated by any of the candidates still in the race. The explanation for this is some clever manipulation of the technical possibilities of electioneering, and one old-fashioned gamble.

For years it has been obvious that the two American political parties were on the skids. An increasingly large number of voters have failed to register as Democrat or Republican, or have been willing to switch from one side to another when it suited them. In the absence of diehard partisans, the old time political machines have not been the source of strategy, organisation or power they once were. In place of the Party, the aspiring Presidential candidate now looks to a group of technicians to run his race. These are loosely affiliated to the main parties, but they must be financed by the candidate himself. They begin with a polling organisation and some test surveys. Their job is to identify the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, his appeal or lack of it, among the major groups of voters which he faces. Much as a medic pumps the lifeless body of an accident victim until a pulse is registered, these polls pump each ethnic, occupational, religious and racial group, the young and old, male, female and unconventional, until “themes” emerge. These are not exactly policies, but carefully crafted symbols which can be interlarded with the candidate’s rhetoric to evince special recognition and support among target groups, without necessarily antagonising others.

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Once the pollsters have developed these themes, the media men go to work to produce the radio and television spots, films, cassette tapes, and mail kits whose distribution is carefully arranged by computer so that for every target suburb, city neighbourhood, ward and precinct in each state and region of the country only the correctly calculated message is delivered.

Naturally, a campaign along these lines is about nothing too detailed or specific. It is reaching for those “levers”, to use the jargon of the trade, with which the broadest popular response can be triggered. Occasionally, if he is lucky, a candidate can attract an unusual outpouring of support. Bush had his jackpot in the January caucuses in Iowa; Anderson in the Massachusetts primary. But the probabilities (as well as the prohibitive costs) are against repeating this success in one location after another. To keep going, the successful candidate needs to be able to command as many “levers” as possible – to seem to be as many different things as there are groups around the country ready to vote, without appearing to be those things which might entice the inert, the apathetic or the wise to leave their homes to vote against. In short, the successful candidate for President has to capture “The Middle”.

Every generation or so, the American political system has wiped out the socialist Left, so that the Middle is much further to the Right here than in most other parts of the world. Urban journalists imagine that the Middle is in a rural location, and North-Eastern journalists – in the narrow world of the American media, all journalists are from the North-East, either originally, currently or hopefully – imagine that the Middle is in the Mid-Western states, despite the fact that the region is durably Republican when the majority of the country is Democratic.

In point of fact, the Middle is simply a statistical invention, the product of those machines and experts who run political campaigns. It is whatever combination of political symbols can be made to succeed in as many primaries as are needed to elect the candidate on the first ballot of the party convention. In devising the right combination of symbols, the candidates start with their polls, as trusted a guide to the mythical Middle as the magnetic North is to a boy scout. The more money they can raise, the more polls and media tests and promotions they can afford. But as the campaign progresses and includes several contestants, each campaigning for the same middle, it is the local and national press which play decisive role.

The national political writers and editorialists identify which of the themes and which of the candidates strike the Middle most accurately. This is an altogether phoney ratiocination – it is nothing but the most subjective of judgments, picked up from Iowa cornpones, cab drivers, drunken stewardesses, elderly retirees, or whoever happens to collar the reporters as they move from stop to stop on the campaign trail – if the publisher doesn’t telephone in the judgment himself. Once they have spoken, the local press and television newsmen pick up the cues and follow the “front-runners”. If, as in Connally’s and then Reagan’s cases, both the national and local contingents in the caravan tire of making the same story each day, then an “underdog” stands a chance of attracting “visibility”.

The Republican John Anderson was able to pick up the endorsements of several small city papers in New Hampshire, and these were instrumental in his first strong showing in the Primary in that state. That in turn gave him a sudden surge in national publicity in the Massachusetts contest immediately afterwards, and the win there – for electoral reasons which distinguish and isolate Massachusetts’ Republicans from the party’s supporters in the rest of the country – promoted his chances in Illinois this week.

Strictly speaking, there shouldn’t be much room for debate among the candidates in this type of electioneering, and indeed, there shouldn’t be if front-runners and well-endowed candidates had their way. Support for the debates in Iowa and New Hampshire came from the invisible challengers, the poor and down-at-heel men who needed the exposure and free publicity. In such debates, only a fool could lose – and George Bush proved himself exactly. Not until after the votes have been cast, however, is it worthwhile to guess which policies might have swayed the result, and whether the Middle might have shifted to the Left (Anderson) or right (Reagan). As the candidates, without exception, chase the Middle to get elected, the process has only a mechanical outcome, and neither a logical nor an ideological one. The Middle is always approximately where the winner of the most recent contest happened to be. It is possible that a candidate can run without intending to be elected and this brief irrationality can galvanise some enthusiasm from the voters. Only the Republican Party has shown over the years any inclination to nominate such candidates – Goldwater was the last of them.

This type of election campaign drags and something very traditional can happen, and Carter and his experts must be given credit for anticipating and then betting on it. You see in a race of several candidates, all pursuing the mythical Middle, the decline of the political parties won’t be as significant as it has seemed. With nothing to choose between the Democratic and the Republican nominees, the party label can make all the difference.

So long as the Democratic president can win the nomination in this case, then he can almost count on defeating anyone the Republicans nominate because traditionally Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one. To reduce the final contest to this old-fashioned form, therefore, Carter must make sure that as frail as it may be these days, the skeleton of the Democratic Party isn’t split over the nomination. And he needs to ensure that there are no policy positions, symbols or levels which are left over for a Republican to attract a mass Democratic defection. An incumbent is nicely positioned to do both, and by accomplishing them already, Carter’s eventual victory now seems assured.

Kennedy will stay in the race in the hope that the President will make a fatal spill. But the Senator has lost so far despite a number of Presidential pitfalls and failures which he has not been able to capitalise on. In this respect, the Chappaquiddick problem is not as significant as might be supposed. A poll by the Los Angeles Times last December showed that the issue was not considered important by more than 60 per cent of registered Democrats. Among these, Carter’s lead over Kennedy remained substantial, and if anything it has grown with time.

In part, Kennedy has failed for lack of the very traditional organisation which his family lineage was thought to guarantee him. While each of the Republican candidates and the President have spent more than twelve months and close to three years collecting money and building an organisation for their campaigns in each state, Kennedy did virtually nothing but read the encomium with which the New York Times and Washington Post have been enticing him into the race. He thus entered last November with relatively poor organisation and a shortage of money. But as Connally, Baker, Bush, Dole, Crane and even Ford can testify, money alone cannot supplant the shortage of people to carry the campaign on the ground and over the airwaves. This is not, by the way, the triumph of democracy over money which some writer have celebrated in Connally’ demise: his supporters are giving to Reagan, to Bush and to Carter with equal zeal and more certain probability of success.

But Carter’s ability to command the urban centres has been quite remarkable – he has gathered the endorsements of informal support of approximately 96 per cent of the city mayors around the country, Democrats and Republicans alike. In Chicago, where the mayor, Jane Byrne, was an early Kennedy endorser, Carter has been able to steal most of the Cook County Party men, as well as the leaderships in the surrounding suburban areas. While these officials cannot muster the legions of voters to the polls, as they once claimed to do, their support for the President is at the very least testimony to Carter’s success in appropriating as much of the middle of domestic policy as he needs to win among the Democrats.

As this has become more obvious, Kennedy’s shortage of money has increased his handicap. At the moment, his financial position is so parlous that he is trying to buy television time for the New York primary on the collateral of still unfinished paintings by well-known supporters. Never has the value of a work by Andrew Warhol been better approximated than as the collateral for a bank transaction to purchase advertising for a failing political candidate.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)