The party establishment is aghast. An insurrectionist candidate is close to securing the party's nomination. Fears arise on the part of the party establishment that this candidate will get clobbered in the General Election. Party chieftains and financial benefactors panic because the insurrectionist candidate is not beholden to them. A cacophony of voices emerges to try to stop this runaway train from garnering the nomination.
This may sound like the current landscape within the Republican Party as real estate mogul Donald Trump is holding a commanding lead for the Presidential nomination, and the GOP establishmentarians are moving full throttle to stop him. Some are even endorsing his chief rival, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), recently the bugbear of the party.
This political scenario played out twice in the 1970's, not in the GOP, but in the Democratic Party. Both times, the effort by the establishment to squelch the insurgency failed.
In 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered just one Democratic Primary, South Dakota, which he lost. Humphrey supported the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson in prosecuting the War in Vietnam. This led many in the party to support anti-war candidates rather than Humphrey. Humphrey's campaign dispatched favorite son candidates like Governor Roger D. Branigin in Indiana to appear on the ballot in his place. These candidates then released their delegates to Humphrey at the Democratic Convention.
Humphrey collected the support of delegates in those states which did not hold primaries. In these states the party elite controlled the delegates. As the result of this somewhat undemocratic process, riots ensued in front of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and anti-war liberals embarrassed Humphrey on the campaign trail, sometimes heckling him at his rallies. Humphrey lost the election, in part because he failed to coalesce the support of the party base.
In response to the discontent within the party, the McGovern-Fraser Commission was established to make the selection process more democratic. One of the reforms it established was that delegates be positioned based upon the state or territory population. Many states conformed to the new rule by awarding delegates at primaries rather than force the candidate to genuflect to the high command of the state party. Consequently, grassroots Democrats were empowered to select the nominee.
Interestingly, one of the Chairmen of this commission, U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD), ran himself for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1972, appealing directly to the ascendant anti-war liberal bloodline of the Party.
While many elected officials took a more nuanced approach toward ending the Vietnam War, McGovern sang from the same hymnbook as the "new left." He stated that as President he would: "announce a definite early date for withdrawal of every American Soldier." In addition, McGovern called for a major truncation of the U.S. military budget over three years and a $1,000 income supplement for every American.
As McGovern racked up formidable primary victories, party regulars formed an "Anybody But McGovern" coalition. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley strategized behind the scenes to stop McGovern at the Convention. The ringleader of the Anybody But McGovern movement was an obscure moderate Governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter. At the Party's National Convention, there was a last ditch effort to save the party from a McGovern nomination. Carter nominated one of McGovern's vanquished rivals for the nomination, U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA). Jackson, a traditional Democrat, had performed poorly in his bid for the nomination, only winning his home state caucuses. However, he did not officially drop out of the race. Carter's effort to promote Jackson failed and McGovern pocketing the nomination.
During the General Election campaign, many down-ballot Democratic candidates joined "Democrats for Nixon" (Republican President Richard M. Nixon) in an effort to inoculate themselves from being tethered to McGovern. Some party loyalists reluctantly supported McGovern, but did little campaigning for him. Former Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson was dismayed by the McGovern nomination, offering him merely a tepid endorsement. Johnson simply stated: "I've always supported the Democratic Party and I'm going to support you." Johnson privately said to his former aide Bobby Baker: "George McGovern? Why, he couldn't carry Texas even if they caught Dick Nixon fu*** ng a Fort Worth sow." Johnson was correct, McGovern lost 49 states and won just 33.24% of the vote in the Loan Star state.
Witnessing how McGovern had won the nomination by taking full advantage of the new state of play in the party, Carter began orchestrating his own candidacy. Carter used his remoteness from the Democratic establishment as an electoral asset. Carter had served just one term as Governor of Georgia. A 1974 Harris Interactive Poll of choices for the 1976 Democratic nomination registered 35 names. Carter did not even make the list.
Carter spent an inordinate amount of time in Iowa, which held the first caucus. Carter correctly predicted that an Iowa victory (he actually came in second to "uncommitted") would put him on the map, giving him the momentum and positive media attention to win New Hampshire, which he did. To the mortification of the party hierarchy, Carter became the frontrunner, forging a coalition of disaffected Democratic voters, African-Americans, Southern Whites, and new voters inspired by Carter's clarion call for "A government that is honest and competent."
In 1972, the Democratic establishment had feared McGovern was too liberal to win the Presidency. In 1976, the Democratic High Command thought Carter was too conservative to rally the party's base in the General Election campaign. Neither candidate was beholden to the party establishment.
Carter's flagship accomplishment as Governor had not been to increase government spending on social services, but to streamline government, reducing the number of government agencies from 300 to just 22. In addition, many Democratic liberals would be reluctant to support a White Southerner. Some associated White Southern politicians with segregation. However, Carter was actually in favor of desegregation and had declared in his 1971 Inauguration address as Governor: "The time for racial discrimination is over." Still, Carter rattled some liberals by telling The New York Daily News that he saw: "Nothing wrong with ethnic purity in urban neighborhoods" and would not "force racial integration of a neighborhood by government action." Carter apologized for the remarks four days later. In addition, some secular liberals were uncomfortable that Carter was a born-again Christian who openly sported his faith.
Shortly after the ethnic purity fiasco, Establishment Democrats rallied around the man Carter had nominated for President in 1972, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, in the critical Pennsylvania primary. Many in the establishment actually favored U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN). However, he had not entered the race. Consequently, the inchoate "Anybody But Carter" movement rallied behind Jackson who led in most polls in Pennsylvania. Yet Carter campaigned indefatigably for eleven days in the Keystone State. To the chagrin of the Democratic establishment, Carter soundly defeated Jackson in Pennsylvania. The Anybody But Carter movement, believing Humphrey was the only person who could halt the Carter groundswell, beseeched him to enter the race, but Humphrey declined.
Two late entrants, U.S. Senator Frank Church (D-ID) and California Governor Jerry Brown, racked up late primary wins, but Carter's delegate lead was immutable. He soundly secured the nomination.
Ultimately, the Democratic base rallied around Carter, allowing him to eke out a victory over Ford. However, President Carter had problems ingratiating himself with his fellow Democrats. Many were dismayed that he worked to balance the federal budget and to streamline the federal government rather than implementing a major social stimulus program to strengthen the nation's economy. In 1980, Carter barely won the renomination by his party, but lost the General Election in an electoral landslide.
Similar to the Democratic leaders who tried to derail the insurrectionist candidacies of McGovern and Carter, Republican sachems are currently working feverishly to deny Trump the GOP nomination. But as the aforementioned examples demonstrate, the party high command is often feckless in immobilizing a grassroots insurgency. In both 1972 and 1976 the establishment failed badly to enfeeble the insurrectionist candidates. When Republican President Gerald R. Ford was asked about the possibility of the Democrats stopping Carter in 1976, he aptly replied: "The only way I can see that they could stop him now is to have a smoke-filled room brokered convention, and I think the public would object to that." Ironically, Ford's insightful comment could apply to the Democratic party's predicament in 1972 with McGovern as well as to the Republican Party's predicament today with Trump.