New Jersey never liked Jimmy Carter.
Consider the fact that Carter couldn’t put down incumbent Republican President Jerry Ford in the 1976 general election. Encumbered by a Republican Party mangled by Watergate and prosecuted by none other than New Jersey’s own U.S. Rep. Pete Rodino (D-Newark), Ford nonetheless defeated Carter in New Jersey despite losing the election overall.
Maybe the fact that the state’s Democratic Party leadership sat on its hands during the primary had something to do with the Southern Governor failing to ignite general election feeling. In any event, Carter’s presidency did little to soothe New Jersey voters or change their minds. In 1980, amid cries for the party to take another direction, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy jumped into the Democratic Primary against the sitting Democratic President.
“We all knew Carter would win Iowa and that Kennedy would roar back and win New Hampshire,” recalled former U.S. Senator Bob Torricielli.
That’s what happened, setting off a long war of attrition through the Democratic Primary season, as Kennedy attempted to undercut the president and become their party’s new nominee.
“I was a Mondale staffer at the time,” Torricielli told PolitickerNJ. “The vice president called me in one day and told me the president wanted us to run the campaign in Illinois. I told Mondale I’d take the weekend to think about it and he told me, ‘You can take the weekend to think about it, but if you come back in here on Monday and say no, you won’t have a job.'”
Torricelli managed Illinois, where Carter beat Kennedy.
But New Jersey resisted the sitting president.
The late Phil Thigpen, who served as chairman of the Essex County Democratic Party at the time of his death in 2013, told PolitickerNJ once that he remembered campaigning door to door with Kennedy in Newark in 1980.
Kennedy beat decisively Carter here in New Jersey, 56-38%; and won California on the same day, but it was too little too late to cut into Carter, as the President defeated the Kennedy scion in the primary 51-38%. Aided by the Iran hostage debacle and an energy crisis, the nationally victorious Ronald Reagan also beat Carter in the general election in New Jersey, 52-39%.