Jules Witcover’s Marathon is the veteran reporter’s story of the 1976 presidential election campaign. Witcover, a Washington correspondent since 1954, covered the campaign from the opening primary to the election for The Washington Post. He follows the candidates through the primaries and the search for delegates in the nonprimary states, at the conventions, and through the fall campaign. As he details events of the campaign, Witcover analyzes the rules governing the primaries, caucuses, and conventions. Throughout the book he discusses the effects of the new public campaign financing law and examines the candidates’ tactics and strategies.
The candidates’ staffs played a major role in planning campaign strategies. Although the author attempts to describe and analyze the type of organization the candidates had in each state, his treatment of this subject is spotty and varies considerably from candidate to candidate. It is not clear whether the failure to discuss the organization of a particular candidate is a result of the candidate’s lack of organization and the reliance instead on mass media, or a judgment by the author that the details would detract from the ongoing story. Witcover carefully investigates the skills of the candidates and their staffs to assess and take maximum advantage of the law for federal funding of presidential elections.
Witcover recognizes the impact the funding of an election by the federal government has on our system of elections. The 1974 federal financing legislation made a dramatic departure from the traditional pattern of financing campaigns in the United States. There is excellent coverage of the critical impact of the hiatus and subsequent delays which occurred in the matching of funds during the primary phase of the campaign. The delays resulted from the Supreme Court’s decision that the structure of the Federal Election Commission was unconstitutional. Candidates were affected differently by the erratic federal matching of primary funds.
Another major effect of the federal campaign reform law was to encourage a large number of candidates to contest for the Democratic nomination. Although this was a factor contributing to the challenge of an incumbent, the more important factor no doubt was the nature of the incumbency. Because President Ford was appointed to the Vice Presidency and became President only upon the resignation of President Nixon, he could not claim all the advantages an incumbent normally has. There is excellent treatment of the expert use Ford made of the advantages of the incumbency that were available. The timely announcement of federal installations, for example, received wide news coverage. However, the billing for the use of Air Force One when matching funds were temporarily suspended did not. This delay in billing financed the President until funds were again forthcoming from the Federal Election Commission.
Federal election funding was not the only new element to which presidential candidates had to adjust in their pursuit of the nation’s highest office. The great increase in the number of primaries in 1976 over 1972 was another change, and the candidates selected different strategies to deal with it. The candidate who chose to enter all the primaries could afford to lose a few if he won some early ones, while the candidate who chose to run in only a few had greater pressure to win those he did enter.
Another major change in the procedure of 1976 was the open caucus, which was the first step in a series of caucuses held at higher and higher levels within a state. The first caucus was in Iowa before the New Hampshire primary. The early date may explain the enormous attention it received from the media. The Iowa caucus was extremely important to Jimmy Carter because he made a showing strong enough to be considered seriously on the national scene.
One facet of presidential campaigning that did not change in 1976 was the attention given to the issues. Witcover does not give a great deal of attention to the issues, and in large measure this represents an accurate reading of the role of issues in our presidential elections. However, the book does suffer somewhat because of this paucity of attention to issues, for Witcover labels candidates as liberal or conservative without explanation or explicit justification. In the early primaries Carter is described as operating in a clear field on the conservative side while, with the exception of Senator Jackson, the remainder of the Democratic candidates were liberals who were dividing the field. It is reasonable to expect some evidence to justify and explain the choice of labels.
The book would be much more valuable in understanding and evaluating President Carter today if more attention had been paid to his position on the issues. Since the charge of being fuzzy on issues did itself become an issue toward the end of the primaries and in the fall campaign, a more detailed coverage of Carter’s position would have provided a better basis for determining whether the charge was valid. In fairness, it should be said that Witcover provides an excellent discussion of the statements made by Carter in regard to ethnic purity and a fair and detailed presentation of Carter’s answers to reporters’ questions. However, the generally inadequate discussion of...
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