Kennedy's Startling Victory
His hopes revive, but the President's lead keeps lengthening
(TIME; April 7, 1980) -- "The President's negatives finally caught up with Ted Kennedy's." So observed White House Press Secretary Jody Powell last week. Through 19 party caucuses and primaries, Democrats had stuck with Jimmy Carter, the lone exceptions coming in Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts and in Alaska. But the morale of American voters has been steadily eroding. They are running out of patience on Iran. They are fed up with the Administration's ineffectual efforts to punish the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan. They are worried about potential energy shortages. They are frightened by inflation.
Last week Democrats in Connecticut and New York took out their frustrations on the President. Confounding predictions by poll, press and pundit of comfortable Carter primary majorities in both states, Democrats gave smashing victories to Ted Kennedy: 47% to 41% in Connecticut, and 59% to 41% in New York. Suddenly, the race that only a week earlier appeared all but over now offered at least a stir of life. Crowed Carey Parker, one of Kennedy's speechwriters, "We felt as if we had pushed and pushed, and the whole dam just burst." Said Richard Drayne, a high-level Kennedy adviser: "The President has been living in a house of cards, and it is finally collapsing."
The Kennedy camp's euphoria seemed premature at best. The odds against the Senator's winning the presidential nomination are still enormous, indeed virtually insuperable. Carter has already won more than half the delegates that he needs for the nomination. (Although various tallies differ, as of last week, Carter had apparently won 835 delegates to Kennedy's 411. Need for nomination: 1,666.) This means that to keep the President from a first ballot victory at the Democratic National Convention in August, Kennedy must win an all-but-impossible 62% of the delegates at stake in all the remaining caucuses and primaries. These contests take place largely in the South, Midwest and West, where Kennedy has little popularity, little organization and little money.
Thus he could keep on doing as well as he did last week, when he won 57% of the delegates, and still lose the nomination. Said a Carter adviser: "everybody knows that we are not going to get through the rest of its without heartburn. But the flip side of 62% is 38%, and it's just not in the cards for us to do that badly." Nonetheless, because of Kennedy's upset victories last week, he now seems likely to struggle on until the finish, on June 3, when Democrats at primaries in California, New Jersey, Ohio and five other states will choose 696 delegates, almost one- fifth of the delegates at the August convention.
For the first three months of the primary season, Carter's candidacy was artificially buoyed by crisis overseas, which caused Americans to rally around him at home, despite double- digit inflation and other domestic problems. Now, the public mood has changed. A national survey for TIME by Yankelovich, Skelly and White, Inc. on March 19 and 20 found American morale and confidence in the future at an alltime low; only 14% are optimistic, compared with a high of 47% early in the Carter Administration. Concern about inflation has surged; 74% of the 1,221 people interviewed consider it to be the country's No. 1 problem, up from 50% in January. Few voters believe that Carter's "new economic program" will stem further price rises. In addition, more than half of the people polled now think that Carter has been "too soft" in dealing with Iran's holding of the American hostages in Tehran, and only 17% believe that his performance on the Afghanistan crisis has increased U.S. prestige abroad.
By the weekend before last Tuesday's primaries, Carter's own polling in New York showed his support melting like snow in the spring. Said a key Carter lieutenant: "We panicked Sunday because there was nothing that we could do to turn it around." It is a commentary on this primary that the very same day there was despair in Kennedy's camp. Several aides considered meeting with the Senator on Tuesday afternoon to tell him that the race was over, that he should withdraw gracefully that evening and not suffer any more humiliating losses.
On Tuesday evening, no one was more dumbfounded by Kennedy's triumph than his own top advisers. "What the hell is going on?" asked Campaign Manager Stephen Smith as he encountered Strategist Edward Martin in a corridor of the Halloran House, the Senator's headquarters hotel in New York City. Replied Martin, with a grin: "How the hell do I know?" The following day, Jimmy Carter asked the same question while speaking at a fund-raising dinner in Washington for Democratic congressional candidates. Said he: "I am sure that a lot of you are wondering what happened in New York and Connecticut. You're not the only ones."
The answer to that question was given by voters as they left the polling places. Manhattan Lawyer Jesse Epstein voted for Kennedy "to wake Carter up." A 50-year-old White Plains freelance writer supported Kennedy to protest Carter's economic policies. Said she: "I'm not pro-Kennedy in any way. I have a basic distrust of the man." Ithaca Magazine Editor Bryant Robey, 89, regarded his ballot for Kennedy as a "message to Carter that I no longer know where he stands on the issues. Leadership is not taking a poll and trying to jump ahead of it."
Surveys of New Yorkers as they left the voting booths showed that Jews, who made up one-fourth of the electorate, deserted Carter by nearly 4 to 1, largely because of the U.N. vote on Israeli settlements. But the Jewish vote only swelled Kennedy's victory margin; he owns enough Roman Catholic votes to offset his weak showing among Protestants, so he would have beaten Carter even if Jewish voters had boycotted the primary entirely. As it was, the Jewish vote was unusually light, meaning that many Jews could stomach neither Kennedy nor Carter and stayed home.
A majority of blacks and Hispanics also voted against Carter, mostly in protest against his proposed budget cuts, especially in aid to cities. Three people out of five cited inflation as a key reason for casting ballots against him. More surprising, Chappaquiddick suddenly faded as an issue, at least temporarily. Kennedy's traditional ethnic constituents, who had seemed most disturbed by the morality issue and his marital problems, flocked back to him. For the first time, according to a New York Times-CBS News poll, more voters said they trusted Kennedy than Carter (49% to 46%).
Still, the proportion of New Yorkers who voted for Kennedy was considerably larger than the proportion who said they trusted him -- another indication that much of what happened was a protest against Carter, not a vote for Kennedy. In Connecticut, the ingredients of Kennedy's victory were somewhat different. The state is far less urbanized and has far fewer Jewish voters than New York. But Connecticut is heavily populated by blue-collar ethnics, and they went overwhelmingly for Kennedy, as did their counterparts in New York. Connecticut's Hispanics, elderly voters and young people also backed him heavily.
New York Times Columnist William Safire summed up the outcome in Connecticut and New York this way: "The East wind that chilled the Carter candidacy this week was made up of four I's -- Inflation, Iran, Israel and Ineptitude." Joel McCleary, manager of Carter's New York campaign, used a homelier, back-country Georgia metaphor: "You can't pee into a hurricane."
The day after the voting, Kennedy and his top aides began redrafting their strategy to make the most of his victories. They regard the odds against him as long, but not insurmountable. Said Rick Stearns, Kennedy's chief delegate hunter: "The nomination is mathematically possible. It's not so clear if it's politically possible. Let's face it. We need a combination of impressive victories and nervousness about Carter's November prospects to have a real chance." Cash contributions to Kennedy, which had been running at about $250,000 a week, began picking up after the victories, but not enough to permit him to match Carter's well- financed, well-organized campaign in the remaining primaries and caucuses. Even so, Kennedy decided to make a last-minute push in this week's primaries in Kansas and Wisconsin, where Carter had seemed to be entrenched. Then he will concentrate on the next big urban, industrial state primary: Pennsylvania on April 22, where Carter in 1976 locked up the nomination.
Kennedy's Pennsylvania campaign seemed to be in considerable disarray. Not a single major elected official has publicly supported him, in contrast to the avalanche of endorsements for Carter, who has methodically phoned most of the state's Democratic leaders for chats about politics, usually at their homes on Sundays. Said a top Pennsylvania Democrat: "He may not know much about running the economy, but he is damn good at running a campaign."
Kennedy nonetheless has some important assets. As soon as the New York results were known, he phoned an old friend for help: Philadelphia Mayor William Green, who so far has stayed officially neutral. Organized labor is another potential source of Kennedy support. Pennsylvania's union bosses refused to back Carter in 1976 and have shown no enthusiasm for him this year.
Kennedy has also achieved a dramatic improvement in his campaign style. During the weeks that his campaign seemed to be self-destructing, the candidate himself began to shine like the political star that he was supposed to be. His speeches have become crisper and more pointed and his syntax less mangled as he relentlessly attacks Carter's economic and foreign policies. The Senator's staff work has also improved. With only two days of preparation, aides last week organized a rally for him in Pittsburgh attended by 10,000 people -- the biggest turnout of his campaign and far larger than the crowd that greeted the Steelers after they won this year's Super Bowl. Kennedy drew his loudest reaction when he called on Carter to leave the Rose Garden and campaign actively Said the Senator: "You've got to come out and face the American people."
But that seems unlikely, at least for the time being. At the White House on primary night, the first problem was how to tell the President that he had been soundly defeated. Said an aide: "Thank God we had him prepared, or it would have been very unpleasant breaking the news." The President was still upset. Said Jody Powell, with what sounded like a hint of understatement: "He is a graceful loser, but he is not a good loser. He was not at all happy."
Carter decided that the defeats were not sufficient cause to change the Rose Garden strategy that has worked well for four months, ever since he vowed to stay off the hustings until the American hostages are released in Tehran. Carter Campaign Chief Robert Strauss insisted that the primary losses were "only a dip in the road" to the convention. Other advisers maintained that they were the price the President had to pay for making tough political decisions like cutting the budget. They also argued that because pre-primary polls showed Carter with huge leads in Connecticut and New York, many voters figured that they could afford to cast protest votes against him. Said Presidential Pollster Patrick Caddell: "I don't know any politician in American who could run against himself and win."
Carter's aides took comfort in the fact that on the Sunday before the primaries, the President won 57 delegates in Virginia's caucuses, to Kennedy's four. Since Kennedy's delegate margin in Connecticut and New York was only 50 (a total of 193 for him to Carter's 143), the week ended with the President's lead lengthening. Moreover, Carter has considerable strength to tap in the contests ahead. Besides the primaries in which he is favored, particularly in Southern and Border states, nine states have yet to hold caucuses, where the President will be able to take advantage of his support among local party officials.
Even if Carter wins the nomination, a noisy and acrimonious campaign by Kennedy may cost him dearly in an autumn battle against Ronald Reagan, who last week was endorsed by John Connally and continued to coast smoothly toward the Republican nomination. Reagan supporters easily won most of the delegate contests in New York, and he ran a strong second to George Bush in Connecticut. In all, Reagan took 87 of the 158 delegates at stake, giving him 293 of the 998 votes need for a first-ballot nomination at the Republican National Convention in July.
At the same time, the Yankelovich survey showed Reagan has gained on Carter in public support. The latest poll found the President ahead by only six percentage points, down sharply from his 32-point margin in January, and back to about where he was when the Iran hostage crisis began. Even former President Gerald Ford has changed his mind about Reagan's chances against Carter in November. For weeks Ford has been saying that Reagan could not win. But last week Ford, who remains open to a draft if the convention deadlocks, predicted that Reagan, "with the full support of all the Republican candidates, could defeat President Carter." According to the Yankelovich survey, Reagan would have a better chance if John Anderson decides to run in November as an independent. In that case, the poll found, Anderson would cut more deeply into Carter's strength than into Reagan's (half of Anderson's supporters say Carter is their second choice; one- third name Reagan as theirs). But the race is still young, with plenty of time left for more surprising twists and turns. As a Kennedy aide observed, "Two months, or even two weeks can be a life-time in the political climate that we have seen this year."
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