Speed Reads

History Lesson

Don't worry, GOP: The Democrats ran 17 candidates in 1976, and America elected Jimmy Carter

There are 17 Republicans running for the 2016 presidential nomination, and if that sounds like an unprecedented circus, it at least isn't unprecedented, notes historian Julian Zelizer at Politico. About that many candidates ran for the Democratic nomination in 1976, and they were just as motley a crew: Lots of prominent U.S. senators, some former governors, and a handful of longshot activists and non-politicians. Newspaper commentators at the time predicted that the Democrats would eat themselves and emerge from the primary contest divided and bruised. Instead, a virtually unknown peanut farmer and former Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter used a novel campaign strategy to win the Democratic nomination, then united his party and beat incumbent President Gerald Ford (R).

There are some similarities in the slate of candidates — the establishment flameouts, the successful mavericks — but also "numerous differences between the Democratic competition in 1976 and the Republican contest today," Zelizer warns.

In 1976, the Republicans were badly damaged by Watergate and the state of the economy. Plus, the Democratic victor faced a Republican candidate who was barely standing as a result of the bruising attacks he endured from Ronald Reagan in the GOP primaries and some major stumbles he made in the fall, such as asserting during the single televised debate, and in the middle of the Cold War, that the Soviets did not dominate Eastern Europe. [Zelizer, in Politico]

Still, Zelizer adds, "the Democratic primaries of 1976 still serve as an important reminder that parties can survive bitter and voluminous nomination battles," even benefit from them. Read the entire history lesson at Politico.