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Meet the New Candidate, Same as the Old Candidate Part II - The George Wallace Story (4/12/16)

In my previous essay, I compared Donald Trump's Presidential candidacy to that of Wendell Willkie, the Republican Presidential nominee in 1940, like Trump a successful business man with no elective office experience and someone with almost no past ties to the political party whose nomination he sought and won for the highest government office in the United States.

Recently it occurred to me that another past Presidential candidate with some similarities to Mr. Trump would be Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who was a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination three times, in 1964, 1972 and 1976 and ran once as an independent candidate for President in the 1968 election, carrying five states and winning 13% of the popular vote.

Although, Wallace had won and held elective office before he sought the Presidency, like Trump, he was an outsider and maverick inside his national party and gloried in the fact. The initial impetus of his Presidential candidacy of course was the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which had frightened and angered many working class white men and women and not just those in the South. (I'm not saying at all that they were justified in their feelings, but frightened and angered many of them undoubtedly were.)

Wallace was no stranger to racial politics, having said privately to a supporter after he lost the Democratic nomination in the 1958 Alabama governor's race, "I was out-niggered by John Patterson. And I'll tell you here and now, I will never be out-niggered again." He won the Alabama's governor office in 1962 and became a hero to many white Southerners when he "stood in the schoolhouse door" of the University of Alabama in an unsuccessful attempt to resist the integration of the student body at that educational institution.

In 1964, Wallace was clever enough to see that there was a body of conservative working class white voters in the Democratic Party, many in the South, but more than a few outside of it, who were not being represented by that party's national establishment." (Sound familiar?) As Wallace put it, ""I am an Alabama Democrat, not a national Democrat. I'm not kin to those folks. The difference between a national Democrat and an Alabama Democrat is like the difference between a Communist and a non-Communist."

Though he must have known he had no chance to win his party's nomination against LBJ who had succeeded the martyred John F. Kennedy only months before, Wallace did enter three Democratic Presidential primaries in Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland. Running against "favorite son" candidates running as stand-ins for Lyndon Johnson, Wallace, to the surprise and discomfiture of many, won between 30 and 43 percent of the Democratic vote in all three states, none of which, except possibly border state Maryland, could be regarded as "southern" states where Wallace might be expected to have a regional appeal.

Four years later in 1968, the ground was even more fertile for Wallace. Race riots in the large American cities caused some to wonder if the granting of full civil rights to black Americans had not caused more problems than it had solved. Others wondered why the nation that had been the arsenal of democracy in World War Two and had helped defeat the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire could now not subdue a small Communist state in Southeast Asia. And in America, the crime rate, black and white, continued to soar.

Since civil rights for blackswere now becoming a basically settled issue, Wallace had modified his image from one as a die-hard segregationist to that of an advocate of "law and order." Like Trump,Wallace spoke his mind without a regard for public niceties long before the term "politically correct" had been coined.  While many members of the liberal establishment praised young left-wing protestors of the time, who marched against America's involvement in Vietnam and for greater benefits for the poor and minorities, Wallace stated, "If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car, it'll be the last car he'll ever lay down in front of."

Incredibly, despite different sets of requirements in each one, Wallace managed to qualify for the ballot in all 50 states and ran for President on the American Independent Party ticket. At times polls had him winning more than 20% of the vote, but in the end he carried only five Southern states, including his native Alabama, and more than one out of eight votes cast total, the biggest showing by a third party Presidential candidate since Robert LaFolette's run on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924. Political analysts still ponder whether his candidacy did the greater harm to the campaigns of the narrow winner, Republican Richard Nixon (by taking away potential conservative votes) or that of his opponent, Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey (by trimming Democratic voting margins in white working class areas.  What is certain is Wallace's percentage of the popular vote cast was more than ten times the margin of Nixon's margin of victory over Humphrey.

In 1972, Wallace decided to eschew another third party run and made a major effort to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. No one thought that Wallace could win his party's nomination, probably not even him, but what is amazing is how well he did. In a field that at one point boasted 12 candidates (another similarity to this year's GOP race) Wallace won five primaries outright. Victories in Southern states like Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida might have been expected, but Wallace also won in border state Maryland and in Michigan, whose northern border was with the Great Lakes and Canada and not the Mason-Dixon Line. (The Alabama governor actually received a majority of the vote in Michigan, largely due to local outrage over a school bussing integration scheme imposed by federal courts.) Wallace also made strong second place showings in other non-Southern states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon and New Mexico as well as border state West Virginia.

Wallace's 1972 campaign was abruptly brought to a stop when on May 15th, at a campaign rally in Laurel, Maryland, the candidate was shot multiple times by the unbalanced Arthur Bremer. Wallace's injuries, which were to leave him wheelchair bound for the rest of his life, abruptly brought an end to his active Presidential campaign, although he was to win two more primaries after the assassination attempt.

If Wallace's plan had been to move the Democrat party in a more moderate to conservative direction, he failed completely. The ultimate winner of the Presidential nomination that year was Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, the most left-wing candidate in the race.  The Alabama governor may have actually aided in McGovern's triumph, by splitting the center-right votes and denying them to more serious candidates.  An example of this was Henry Jackson, Senator from Washington and an example of what used to be called a "Cold War liberal," an office holder who had typically liberal views on most domestic issues, but who supported a strong national defense and strongly opposed Communist expansion around the globe coupled with a strong defense of Israel's right to exist.  He had been expected to be one of the leading candidates and Jackson had placed his hopes for a strong start for his campaign on a primary win in Florida because of its conservative white electorate and large Jewish vote in the Sunshine State's urban centers.  When the votes were counted, however, Jackson had come in a poor third, with less than 14% of the vote, while Wallace received more than triple his total for his first place finish.  Jackson dropped out of the race soon afterwards. 

In the subsequent general election, where Wallace remained neutral, McGovern went down to a disastrous defeat, winning only one state and the District of Columbia. Exit polls of the outcome revealed that the 1968 Wallace vote had gone almost entirely to Nixon, giving the incumbent President over 60% of the electorate.

Despite his injuries, Wallace remained Governor of Alabama and attempted another Presidential run in 1976. However, that year, the Democratic party found a Southern candidate more respectable and moderate than Wallace to be its standard bearer in the person of Jimmy Carter, former Georgia governor. With the liberal vote this time split among a number of candidates, Carter was able to win plurality victories in a number of contests and ultimately the nomination at his party convention. With a nod to the left-wing of his party, he made Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota his running mate and in November won a narrow victory over President Gerald Ford, who had succeeded to the Presidency after Richard Nixon's resignation over the Watergate scandal. Carter won this victory by winning the white southern vote for the Democrats for the first time in several elections and captured the electoral votes of 10 out of the 11 states of the Old Confederacy.

This was to be effectively Wallace's last major appearance on the national stage. He endorsed Carter in the Presidential race in the fall and was to do the same for every Democrat Presidential nominee until his death in 1998, even liberals like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. This was probably not a surprise, many in the conservative movement had pointed out that aside from race and law and order issues, Wallace's past record had been quite conventionally liberal and when those hot button issues lost their timeliness, Wallace simply reverted to his old political allegiances.

Are there similarities between the candidacies of George Wallace and Donald Trump?  There are certainly some decided differences. Unlike Trump, Wallace was always a political animal, running for and winning political offices all of his adult life.  The presidential campaigns of the two men are much more alike.  Both men ran as mavericks, with almost no support from their party's "establishments" and office holdersm both men did better in their first national races than almost anyone had believed possible.

And their effect on their mutual political parties? Wallace may well have cost his party the 1972 election, while at the same time paving the way for the Democratic party's triumph four years later, by convincing it of the need of winning the white Southern vote.

It is too early to tell if Trump will have ultimately helped or hurt the Republican party, whether as its 2016 nominee or disgruntled also-ran, that will not be known until after the November 8th election. But it will certainly be fascinating to see how his campaign ultimately plays out!
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