The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The last time the Democratic field was so crowded, a peanut farmer won the White House

Some of the Democratic candidates running for president in 1976, from upper left: Birch Bayh, Lloyd Bentsen, Jerry Brown, Jimmy Carter, Frank Church, Fred Harris, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Terry Sanford, Milton Shapp, Sargent Shriver, Morris Udall and George Wallace. (The Washington Post/AP; National Archives; Pa. State Archives; White House; U.S. Congress; The Washington Post)

As the primaries approached, one Democrat after another announced campaigns for president. Most were senators. Some were governors. One was a mayor. They spoke of a need to clean up an executive branch they said was riddled with corruption.

No, this isn’t a description of the 2020 campaign. It was 1976 — the most crowded Democratic presidential field in modern American history, until the current election cycle, which boasts 23.

Who's hoping to challenge Trump for president in 2020?

And, despite worries about a bruising intraparty battle, the little-known peanut farmer who won the primaries also won the White House. His name was Jimmy Carter.

How many Democratic candidates were there in 1976? One historian put the number at 17, though it depends on how you count them. Let’s just say the race was remarkably fluid right up until the last primary.

The first to announce was Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona in late November of 1974, almost a full two years before the election. The longtime congressman came from a famous political dynasty. (Four generations of Udalls have served in various elected offices across the American West.)

The next was Carter, who was weeks away from finishing his term as Georgia governor. He was so unknown that a Gallup poll that asked voters for their impressions of 31 possible candidates didn’t even have Carter on the list.

But Carter had a few things going for him.

First, he had visited nearly three dozen states that year in his Democratic Party role coordinating the midterm elections, developing “a reputation as a tactician and an organizer,” the New York Times wrote.

Second, he guessed correctly that in the first presidential election since President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, voters would be looking for an outsider to reform Washington. Even with Nixon gone, resentment toward the president who had pardoned him, Gerald Ford, was high.

Ford never recovered from the pardon he gave Nixon

“People are disillusioned with officials in Washington. They are looking for a new face, a new leader whose ideas work,” Carter wrote in his first fundraising letter.

Which brings us to one more thing in Carter’s favor. After 1968, changes to the nomination process meant party bosses no longer picked a candidate at the convention; instead, primaries and caucuses became the key decider. And, crucially, Iowa had moved its caucuses to front of the calendar. Carter planned to compete in every primary — a rare move at the time — and focused his energy on winning Iowa to build early momentum.

It was, at the time, a new and bold strategy.

So when political veteran Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (Wash.), regarded by some as the front-runner, announced his candidacy a few months later, he told reporters he didn’t plan to travel much and would campaign from the Senate. And he didn’t enter all of the primaries.

The same went for Sens. Lloyd Bentsen (Tex.) and Birch Bayh (Ind.), and former senator Fred Harris (Okla.), who all announced in early 1975. They didn’t sign up for all the primaries, although Bayh, like Carter, decided to campaign hard in Iowa.

Then the floodgates opened: former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford, diplomat Sargent Shriver, Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp, Alabama Gov. George Wallace and antiabortion “housewife” Ellen McCormack all got into the race. By the end of 1975, 10 candidates had announced.

Wallace posed a particular concern to all involved. Though he wasn’t expected to win, he had “perhaps 10 to 20 percent of the electorate,” The Washington Post reported, meaning he could end up being a power broker at the convention if no candidate had won a majority of the delegates by then.

The 'law and order' campaign that won Richard Nixon the White House 50 years ago

There were also a handful of “favorite son” candidates to contend with, including D.C. Mayor Walter Washington and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Favorite son was a time-honored tactic whereby a popular state leader would run in the primary in their home state only — not to win the presidency but to negotiate concessions from candidates in exchange for the favorite son’s delegates. By 1976, this maneuver was essentially obsolete, though few realized it yet.

And even on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, more candidates loomed. Sen. Frank Church of Idaho believed himself to be the front-runner, Princeton University historian Julian E. Zelizer wrote in Politico, but he figured he would wait until some of the candidates destroyed each other before entering the race unscathed.

In January of 1976, Carter got what he wanted in Iowa — sort of. He beat his rivals, but “uncommitted” got the most votes. Still, he was showered with media attention heading into New Hampshire.

A month later, he won New Hampshire, with Udall and Bayh coming in second and third, respectively.

The momentum was short-lived. On March 2, Jackson won delegate-rich Massachusetts. Carter came in fourth after Udall and Wallace.

There were further setbacks. At a televised presidential forum, The Post described Carter’s performance as “calculated evasiveness.”

Jackson attacked, saying: “In Iowa, he promises to abolish legalized abortion. In New York, he promises to oppose a constitutional amendment for such change.”

Then, when asked by the New York Daily News if public housing should be scattered throughout metropolitan areas, Carter responded, “I see nothing wrong with ethnic purity being maintained.” The Congressional Black Caucus complained, and Carter apologized, saying he meant he wouldn’t, by government fiat, change a neighborhood’s “ethnic character.”

Church finally entered the race in mid-March, subsequently winning in Nebraska, Oregon and other Western states.

Then, in a surprise move, Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown announced he would run, just so he could block Jackson from winning in California. He picked up Maryland on the way.

There was even a “Draft Humphrey” movement, and former vice president Hubert Humphrey toyed with the idea of putting himself forward as a consensus candidate at the convention.

A ‘Pearl Harbor in politics’: LBJ’s stunning decision not to seek reelection

In April, Jackson lost Pennsylvania to Carter, despite campaigning hard there. He was out of money and suspended his campaign.

It all came down to the last three primaries on June 8: Ohio, New Jersey and California. Carter didn’t bother with the latter two, putting everything he had in Ohio. He won.

He had the most delegates, but he still hadn’t locked in the nomination. Then, according to Zelizer, he got a call from Wallace, offering him his delegates. Wary of the appearance of accepting a gift from the racist Wallace, Carter called Jackson, who agreed to release his delegates to Carter, too.

Carter had clinched the nomination, only a month before the convention in New York.

“Everything fell into place so quickly for Carter,” The Post reported, “that it was hard to remember how long and how hard he had labored to make that moment inevitable.”

Fears that Democrats wouldn’t unite behind Carter proved unfounded. At the convention, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., the father of the slain civil rights leader, said a prayer calling everyone together. And Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota, who had also considered running, was chosen as the vice presidential candidate, balancing the ticket between the North and the South.

The Republicans had their own struggles going into the general election, after Ford fended off a primary challenge from former California governor Ronald Reagan.

A few months later, the peanut farmer prevailed, narrowly beating Ford with 297 electoral votes to Ford’s 240. Carter moved into the White House and into the history books.

Read more Retropolis:

Ron Chernow delivers a history of presidents and the press — and takes down Trump at correspondents’ dinner.

‘His Accidency’: The first president to die in office and the constitutional confusion that followed

‘You were the reason’: Barbara and George Bush’s love story remembered at her funeral