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OPINION: An almost 40-year flashback to a difficult election for Democrats
Chris Bridges
Chris Bridges

A brief news item recently about former South Carolina Sen. Ernest Hollings took me back to the 1984 Democratic Primary for president.

Hollings was a candidate that year (in the early contests, at least) as part of a process that would lead to one of the most lopsided general election defeats for president for Democrats.

With a Republican incumbent in the White House there were several Democrats who wanted the chance to unseat him. It would prove more difficult than any of them would have ever imagined.

Former vice president Walter Mondale, Colorado senator Gary Hart, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ohio senator John Glenn, former South Dakota senator (and 1972 nominee) George McGovern, former Florida governor Reubin Askew and Sen. Alan Cranston of California joined Hollings in the primary. Cranston had an amusing commercial that year taking a poke at Glenn and his “blasting off” into space. It’s on YouTube and worth a look. Mondale was considered the early favorite and won the Iowa caucus. However, Hart had worked to build a strong camp in New Hampshire, which was the state with the first primary. Unknown nationally when the campaign started, Hart took the win in the Live Free or Die state with more than 37% of the vote. Hart then won contests in Vermont and Wyoming and finished essentially tied for second in Alabama.

Hart actually won more states that year than Mondale who eventually took the nomination. Jackson would win two states but his overall 18% of the vote that year was the strongest ever for an African-American candidate nationally. Jackson received more than 3 million votes as he and Hart would both be back four years later. Mondale ran a poor general election campaign and, as a result, was trounced by the very popular Ronald Reagan. Hollings meanwhile did not do well in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, effectively ending his campaign. The same was true for Cranston and Askew as all faced long odds to begin with. Glenn’s best showing was 20% in the Alabama primary. 

McGovern, still holding the stigma of the 1972 thrashing, finished third in the Iowa caucus and third in Massachusetts but Democratic voters, while probably liking McGovern’s stances, could not get the memory of 12 years earlier out of their minds. It was the end of McGovern’s political career nationally as he gave a rather sad speech at the convention that year saying “at least we tried” when talking about his 1984 campaign. 

Hart emerged as the front-runner for 1988 and was perhaps on his way to being the nominee before his infamous cheating scandal emerged. Reagan went on to be one of the more popular presidents in the country’s history. In fact, he is as much a part of 1980s culture as the Rubik’s Cube or Pac Man.

Perhaps most difficult to believe now is that this election took place almost 40 years ago.

Chris Bridges is managing editor of The Walton Tribune.