Florida has played decisive role in who gets the party nomination

Jimmy Carter was victorious in Florida’s primary, politically configured to ensure segregationist George Wallace was defeated.
Jimmy Carter was victorious in Florida’s primary, politically configured to ensure segregationist George Wallace was defeated. Jimmy Carter Library

As you watch the votes in Florida’s presidential primary being counted Tuesday night, it would be understandable if you thought presidential primaries have been around forever. But their importance is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Before 1972, presidential primaries only indirectly influenced the nominating process. The 1952 Republican presidential primaries launched Dwight Eisenhower’s candidacy. The 1960 Democratic primaries were a platform for John Kennedy to demonstrate that a Catholic could get elected. The 1968 Democratic primaries forced Lyndon Johnson from the presidency.

At the end of the day, the nominating processes in both parties were controlled by their respective elites. It was those elite party activists and donors who, for example, helped Hubert Humphrey win the Democratic nomination in 1968 without winning a single Democratic primary. The aftermath was the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon in the general election. Reformers, primarily in the Democratic Party, forced changes that led to the growth of the primary system as we know it today.

For the Democratic Party, these wholesale changes in delegate selection recommended by the McGovern-Fraser Commission immediately led to a total disruption of the control by the established party leadership in the 1972 nominating process. Naturally, Sen. George McGovern understood that the rule changes elevated the importance of the primaries, and he used that knowledge to win the party’s nomination. Although his candidacy led to a devastating Democratic defeat in 1972, the rule changes and the role of primaries were here to stay.

The path to nomination now required entering and winning an extensive range of either party’s primaries. However, it appeared that the establishment elite of the Republican Party had a more significant influence on primary outcomes than those of the Democratic Party, leading to more predictable results. In any case, with rare exception, both parties had a presumptive nominee before the end of their primary seasons. Brokered conventions run by backroom party bosses were a thing of the past.

Where has the Florida Presidential Primary historically fit in all this? In 1984, Gary Hart’s win in Florida catapulted him briefly to frontrunner status against Vice President Walter Mondale. Florida also had minor roles in helping to seal the nominations of Bill Clinton in 1992 and John Kerry in 2004. But there was one Democratic presidential primary in Florida that was undisputedly decisive in helping to elect a president, and that was the state’s Democratic support for Jimmy Carter in 1976.

In a long-forgotten meeting of Democratic activists in Chicago in late 1974, those of us in attendance were alarmed by polls that showed Gov. George Wallace, an ardent segregationist, had a path to the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination following a strong showing in the 1972 primaries. It was agreed that the most effective strategy to ending the Wallace insurgency was to defeat him in Florida with Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter as our candidate. Amazingly, liberal candidates Mo Udall, Sargent Shriver and Birch Bayh were persuaded to stay out of Florida to give Carter a clear path to beating Wallace. No one in that Chicago room believed Carter would be the ultimate nominee, but then he won Iowa and New Hampshire, setting up a Florida showdown, which Carter won. A big Florida victory gave him the momentum to win the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.

The history of the Florida Republican primary seems to underline the point made about the establishment influence. Its role seemingly is to ratify the choice of the party elites, from George H.W. Bush in 1988 through Mitt Romney in 2012. Unfortunately, since the creation of Super Tuesday in 1988, Florida has not played a decisive role for either party.

Tuesday’s Florida Republican primary, however, can be historic. A Florida win by Donald Trump can complete a total hostile takeover by anti-establishment forces of the Republican Party, much like what happened to the Democratic Party in 1972. A loss by Marco Rubio might leave just Ted Cruz and Trump standing, the two candidates literally hated by the establishment. In either case, mainstream Republicans, traditionally important in the party, will have been totally obliterated. If that happens, future Republican primaries and their role in the nominating process will never be the same.

As Lady Crawley said in the very final scene of Downton Abbey, “We’re going towards the future, not back to the past.” To which the Dowager Countess responded, “If only we had a choice.”

Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.