As an old guy with a particularly long interest in the career of Georgia’s Democratic President Jimmy Carter, I noted with interest some new revelations about the end-game of the 1980 elections, and wrote about it at New York:
Jimmy Carter’s slow drift toward life’s end after the longest and most impressive post-presidency in U.S. history has spawned a lot of retrospective assessments of the 39th president and his legacy. But the New York Times has brought us a look back that’s also news: Longtime Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes, now 85, decided to let it be known that he was part of a scheme in 1980 to make sure Carter’s reelection campaign wouldn’t benefit from an early release of the U.S. hostages in Tehran whose captivity had tormented the White House since November 1979.
Barnes’s story is indeed stunning. For decades, it was generally assumed that Iran’s revolutionary regime countenanced the hostage taking by allied students and activists and refused to negotiate a release with the Carter administration because of entrenched hostility toward Carter over his friendship with the deposed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and/or because they had reason to expect a better deal from Carter’s general-election opponent, Ronald Reagan. (Iran released the hostages, after 444 days, on Reagan’s Inauguration Day.) But no one has really offered concrete evidence of a dirty Republican deal with Tehran until now. And the prime mover in the reported drama happens to be one of the shadier figures of the modern era, former Texas governor John Connally, a powerful career-long political fixer who was suspected of personal corruption.
Best known for being wounded in the same car that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in, Connally, a protégé of Lyndon B. Johnson, played a large role in the defection of southern Democrats to the Republican Party during Richard Nixon’s administration, during which he served as Treasury secretary. His influence was best reflected by his success in convincing Nixon to impose the heretical step of wage and price controls to (temporarily) rein in inflation. Connally was reportedly Nixon’s preferred pick to replace disgraced vice-president Spiro T. Agnew, but the hostility of Democrats toward the turncoat and his less-than-ideal reputation led the Republican president to instead choose Gerald Ford, whom Carter defeated in 1976.
Four years later, Connally launched his own presidential campaign, but despite lavish funding and enthusiastic backing from corporate leaders, he floundered in Iowa and New Hampshire, losing to Reagan. According to Barnes, a longtime political associate and business partner of his fellow Texan, Connally was determined to land a high-level Cabinet appointment in a Reagan administration, so, with Barnes in tow, he put on his globe-trotting shoes to prove his worth. Per the Times account:
“What happened next Mr. Barnes has largely kept secret for nearly 43 years. Mr. Connally, he said, took him to one Middle Eastern capital after another that summer, meeting with a host of regional leaders to deliver a blunt message to be passed to Iran: Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.”
The Iranians appear to have gotten the message, as a happy Connally later reported to Reagan’s campaign chairman and future CIA director William Casey.
So should we conclude that if Connally’s mission hadn’t take place, Carter might well have won a second presidential term, relegating Reagan (and quite possibly his running mate, George H.W. Bush. and his running mate’s son George W. Bush) to the political dustbin? Tempting as the hypothesis is, it is not terribly plausible.
First of all, the Islamic regime in Tehran didn’t trust any American politician enough to depend on indirect promises of a “better deal,” and its hatred of and desire to humiliate Carter ran deep, independent of any comparison with Reagan.
Second of all, if Connally played such a dramatic role in postponing a potential hostage release, Team Reagan was notably under-appreciative. Hoping to become Secretary of State or Defense once Reagan took office, he was instead offered the Department of Energy (which the new administration intended to abolish); Connally contemptuously rejected the gig.
More important, the Iran-hostage crisis was just one of the problems weighing down Carter’s reelection campaign heading into 1980. Far more damaging than the hostage situation or any international issue was the economy, which had produced the election-year disaster of “stagflation.” In 1980, the average unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, the average inflation rate was 12.67 percent, and average home-mortgage rates were 13.74 percent. This was a political-economic catastrophe for Carter.
And that wasn’t all. Carter had to deal with a deeply divided Democratic Party and one of the strongest primary challenges any modern incumbent president has faced from liberal legend Ted Kennedy. (Ironically, a rally-round-the-flag effect stemming from the hostage crisis undoubtedly helped Carter hold off Kennedy’s challenge.) And Carter’s reelection campaign had a big strategic problem to overcome. He had narrowly won the 1976 general election thanks to the excitement of southern and southern-inflected voters (many of them former Nixon and future Reagan voters) who were thrilled to have credible presidential candidate emerge from their region of the country. But it was extremely difficult for Carter to maintain that unique coalition, particularly against an ideological candidate like Reagan. He also lost a lot of liberal voters to third-party candidate John Anderson, who ran to Carter’s left. Under these circumstances, it was actually impressive that Carter lost to Reagan by only 9.8 percent of the popular vote (though he lost the Electoral College by a 489-to-49 margin). Well before Connally and Barnes’s Middle East tour, Carter’s job-approval rating (per Gallup) had already slipped well below 40 percent, never to recover.
As much as it might give Carter and his friends some grim sense of vindication to know that skullduggery was deployed to keep the hostages locked up as his presidency slipped away, it ultimately mattered only at the margins. But the tale does provide a bit more posthumous damage to the already spotty image of Connally.
Given that the Democratic campaign has upped the early voting in its favor, then wouldn’t the exit polls show a favorable number of Bush voters on the election day itself in a number of key battleground states? Couldn’t this be used to “spin” the exit polls for the Republicans?
Did you notice the 8 point party ID registration
advantage for Democrats? That’s TWICE what it
was in 2000. Combine that with the Democracy Corps poll which showed Kerry with only 1 percent
less support among D’s than Bush has among R’s,
and with the energized left…well, I guess we’ll see.
Something that just struck me: Suppose Gallup — whose likely voter model we sneer at — were to suddenly revise its judgment on the composition of the electorate, based on Gans’ oft-repeated observations? Would its LV model then be closer to reality? My thought is, perhaps not. The Gallup voter screen would probably operate in much the same way even while opening the window a bit wider — that is to say, they’d let in more voters (getting to, say, 60%), but they’d still use the same criteria in deciding who’s more and less likely. It seems to me that young and minority voters — seemingly the basis of much of the increased turnout — would still be be at the bottom of their pyramid, and still be the ones least likely to make the cut. What if the situation this year is, the least likely voters of all join the party, and (at least potentially) seeming sure-thing voters — lifelong but disgusted Republicans — stay home? Is there any model truly apt to yield the right numbers in that situation?
Tangential observation: is it posible this situation could also create a coattail effect? Coattails are, to me, a misnamed phenomenon: they imply that a president’s numbers are so strong they drag along underdog down-ballot candidates to victory. This was certainly the case in 1964, but I’ve seen two landslide presidential re-elections since — 1972 and 1984 — where the wide margin did nothing whatever for Congressional candidates. On the other hand, I saw 1980, where Reagan got barely 50% of the national vote, but saw his party pick up 37 House seats and a slew in the Senate. It strikes that what 1964 and 1980 had in common was a disgust on the part of the losing party with its candidate, resulting in poor turnout for that party and thus an unusually tilted electorate. Is it possible we’ll get the same next Tuesday, with young and minority voters not only turning out at unexpected levels, bu representing a higher percentage of the total electorate than could otherwise be expected, because a small number of Republicans simply decide their guy’s worthless and stay home? Suddenly, every Dem candidate within range could find him/herself over the top, and the Congressional numbers could shift to a startling degree.
There’s a better way than a survey to track early voting — go to the secretaries of states themselves. You’ll find that the rates are even higher (for the states for which I can find data, double the rate of 2000 a week before election day) than the NAES suggests.
I’m glad to see Curtiz Gans quoted here. He is very reliable and a good, unbiased source for voter analysis.
All the results for higher turnout usually favor Dems. I’m glad many states have gone out of their way to make voting available on more than just one day (even if you are supposed to have a valid excuse for absentee voting in some states like VA). It only makes sense.
Gans in previous years has been a debunker of high-turnout predictions, as I recall. So it’s good to see his thoughts on this year.