1984: Mondale's downfall
May 03. 2011 12:26PM
By 1984, for the first time since 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson was unopposed, one party had a non-competitive primary in New Hampshire. President Reagan faced only Harold Stassen and three unknowns and received 65,033 votes for 86.4 percent. All 22 of the delegates to the Republican National Convention in Dallas were pledged to the President.
The New Hampshire primary has earned a reputation as the launching pad for long-shots and that proved the case in 1984 for Colorado Senator Gary Hart. His stunning upset of the front-runner, former Vice President Walter Mondale, was all the more remarkable because Mondale had spent considerable time stumping the state (a full 51 days compared to Hart's 57 and Ohio Senator John Glenn's 37). In addition, Mondale had managed to put together a strong organizational effort, with organized labor as his cornerstone.
Senator Glenn put all his eggs into one basket, the hope that a massive investment in Boston TV advertising would boost his fortunes in the populous southern tier of the state. His poor showing strengthened the contrary opinion that the road to success in the first primary is not single-minded reliance on a sizable budget for TV ads. Jeanne Shaheen, who directed Hart's winning campaign, commented: "New Hampshire is still the grassroots state. It's still the state where you can't just fun $200,000 worth of Boston television ads and still win. You've got to have the organization behind you. If there was one thing that 1984 did for me, it was to reinforce in my mind the importance of grassroots organization in New Hampshire."
The candidate who most clearly followed the organizational and personal presence model of Estes Kefauver, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern was Senator Hart. His campaign supporters knocked on approximately 80,000 doors during their canvassing efforts, which began in October 1983.
In the struggle to become a leading challenger to Walter Mondale, Glenn and Hart faced competition from two United States senators - Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Alan Cranston of California - and a former governor of Florida, Reubin Askew. With 3,583 votes for Hollings, 2,136 for Cranston and 1,025 for Askew, each received fewer votes than the 5,058 Democratic write-ins for President Reagan. Cranston withdrew from the race the day after the first primary, Askew and Hollings the day after that. (While the Democratic write-in for the President generated considerable media attention, the 5 percent it achieved was less than the 5.3 percent of the Republicans who wrote in Hart's name.)
Senator Hollings enlivened many a debate and meeting with his sharp tongue and quick wit. The contender with the most authoritative presence, this graduate of The Citadel was the type of Sun Belt Democrat who might have turned out to be the most formidable challenger to President Reagan in the general election, yet he was unable to win the nomination.
Askew built a better organizational base than his fellow Southerner Hollings, but he was handicapped by a tendency to ramble in his speeches. His conservative views on abortion, the nuclear weapons freeze and right-to-work legislation placed Askew out of the ideological mainstream of his party.
Perhaps the most salient observation regarding Askew's lack of Washington experience was provided by Hollings, who said of the former Florida governor: "He's got a good track record, but there's not enough of it - a lot like Glenn. He just hasn't been in Washington. He was only there momentarily at the end of the Carter administration in the worst of roles - that of special trade representative. He hasn't been in the Congress, he hasn't debated foreign policy issues, he hasn't voted on defense issues, the economy and everything else of that kind."
The often-criticized primary process does test the organizational and administrative skills of candidates, in particular their ability to recruit and select a good management team, who in turn must execute a campaign plan. This process forces out men who, when confronted with the challenge of constructing an organization, fall short. Such a failure leaves a question: If a candidate is incapable of organizing an effective campaign, what chance does he have of being a successful chief executive officer of the federal government?
The Reverend Jesse Jackson began the presidential election year on a high note: playing a leading role in the release on January 3 of Navy flier Robert Goodman, a former resident of Portsmouth, from the Syrians. Goodman had been Shot down while on a bombing mission over Lebanon on December 4. Jackson rode a wave of media coverage and nudged near the 20 percent mark in some polling in the first primary, yet once the news media reported on his reference to New York City as Hymietown, his political fortunes began a swift decline. In a apology delivered in a Manchester synagogue just days before the primary, Jackson called his own remarks "insensitive and wrong."
Without such a controversy, Jackson might have attained the 10 percent mark reached in 1976 by another populist, anti-establishment Democrat, Fred Harris. He instead reaped only 5,311 votes, 5.3 percent, scarcely edging than the 5,217 loyalists of George McGovern.
The rapid descent of Jackson in polls at the end of the campaign helped strengthen the wave of media attention that Gary Hart was beginning to ride. That wave picked up more force when Hart finished second to Mondale in the Iowa caucuses on February 20. Although Mondale won handily in Iowa, 49 percent to 17 percent, Hart's showing was the surprise. John Glenn finished sixth in Iowa with just 3.6 percent and was promptly written off by newsmen. Thus, the Colorado senator was the one who received favorable press coverage during the final week of the New Hampshire test.
Three factors proved Mondale's downfall in New Hampshire: an "old-fashioned" liberal message, a fear by many Democrats that a 1984 Mondale Presidential campaign would be forced to defend the defeated Carter administration instead of attacking Reagan's record, and a television demeanor that was as boring and tedious as Hart's was sharp and forceful.
Believing that a candidate's presence in the state during the days before the voting is a drain on the organization, Mondale was dispatched to campaign in Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and even in the nation's capital as the primary campaign ended and Hart seized the momentum in New Hampshire.
Dayton Duncan, who had been deputy press secretary to the national Mondale campaign, said the plan was part of a strategy to "keep him in the public eye through Boston TV, Maine TV and Vermont TV. But we found out the way that was interpreted by the political commentators at the time was that Mondale's self-confident, so assured of winning in New Hampshire that he's not in the state at all." It was not a new mistake; Reagan had done the same in 1976 and Bush in 1980.
Voting during a snowstorm, New Hampshire Democrats turned the nomination race upside down. Hart won 37,702 to 28,173, 37.3 percent to 27.9 percent. Hart won every county except Coos, which Mondale captured with 39.4 percent. Hart's strongest county was Belknap with 46 percent. Mondale, who was ahead in every poll published prior to the election, even managed to lose the vote in the cities, 16,304 to 14,880, and he could carry just three - Berlin, Nashua and Portsmouth. Hart's strongest city was Concord, 44.6 percent, and in the rapidly-growing 15 largest towns, Hart topped Mondale convincingly, 7,157 to 4,618.
In analyzing Hart's upset, one of his advisors, Will Kanteres of Manchester, said: "I think Gary Hart come across as being very open and very likable...He was at an advantage because in Now Hampshire it's a pretty sophisticated voter going to the polls and we take the primary very seriously. Hart managed to address the issues in such a substantial way he caught the people's attention. Therefore, the impression was he had done his homework on the issues, so there was something substantial behind his personality."
On November 6, 1984, President Reagan carried every state in the Union save for Mondale's native Minnesota. The margin of victory was almost 17 million votes. The support the Reagan-Bush ticket received in the Granite State, 68.7 percent, was the highest for a Presidential candidate in the state this, century and tied Republican William McKinley's tally in 1896. This percentage has been topped in New Hampshire only once - when Democrat Martin Van Buren won 75 percent over the Whig Party's aspirant, William Harrison, in 1836.