The throng of Minnesotans that descended on Des Moines, Waterloo and Mason City included the state’s DFL governor and the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Minnesota notables were spending their January weekend knocking on Iowa doors to boost the chances of a fellow Minnesotan who was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in the first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses.
But these Minnesota politicos had not come to Iowa to campaign for Amy Klobuchar. They had come 36 years earlier to boost the presidential chances of Klobuchar’s mentor, former U.S. Vice President and Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale.
‘I know myself and I am ready’
Declaring that “I know myself and I am ready,” Mondale launched his campaign to oust incumbent Ronald Reagan in February 1983, with a speech at the Minnesota Capitol. More than 20 years earlier, the former vice president had started his climb up the national political ladder at the Capitol when he was appointed to the fill the vacant post of Minnesota attorney general.
Throughout 1983, Mondale led in the presidential polls, with Ohio’s John Glenn running second. Colorado Sen. Gary Hart was also included on the pollsters’ list of presidential hopefuls, but Hart was polling in the low single digits. That would change in 1984, when the Kennedy-esque Hart would emerge as Mondale’s major competitor for the nomination.
In mid-January, as the countdown to the Feb. 21 Iowa caucuses was under way, most political prognosticators did not view Hart as much of a threat. Mondale’s ground game was moving into high gear. “He had more people in more places across Iowa’s 99 counties than his competitors,” reported the Minneapolis Tribune’s Finlay Lewis. “His campaign is richer, better engineered, better manned, more imaginative by far than the effort of his nearest rival in the polls, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio.”
‘There is something missing’
But Washington Post pundit Richard Cohen was not so impressed. On assignment in Clinton, Iowa, Cohen wrote that “Walter Mondale strides across this state like the Jolly Green Giant. He dominates the polls, needs two planes for his news media contingent and makes appearances that are better advanced than General Dwight Eisenhower’s at the Normandy beaches. And yet there is something missing, call it enthusiasm, call it emotion. … the Mondale campaign walks, talks and acts like the dominant front-runner. It just doesn’t feel like one.”
“Instead of excitement, there is a sense of duty or obligation about this campaign,” Cohen continued. “The operative word is ‘restore’ — a word that Mondale frequently uses. If elected, he will restore the programs eliminated or cut by President Reagan. He will restore a sense of fairness and once again obligate the president to do the right thing.”
Then, in a critique that could apply to another former vice president running to oust an incumbent Republican president, Cohen observed, “it is all good stuff, but it makes Mondale the candidate of the recent past, a kind of monarch in exile waiting for the restoration.”
Mondale won, but Hart got the media buzz
In February 1984, Mondale may have been the candidate of the recent past, but he was the candidate many Iowa caucus-goers favored that year. On Feb. 22, as expected, Mondale won the caucuses with a strong first-place showing. But then, as now, the early presidential nomination battles involved a game of expectations. It was not the winner of the Iowa caucuses who generated media buzz after the votes were counted; it was the second-place finisher, Gary Hart, who exceeded expectations by pushing himself ahead of the man everyone thought would come in second, John Glenn. Hart’s stronger-than-expected showing forced Glenn out of the race. The Colorado senator would use his “ticket out of Iowa” to generate momentum and win the Feb. 28 New Hampshire primary, with 37% of the vote to Mondale’s 28%.
In a March televised debate, Mondale landed a blow on Hart with what came to be the most quoted line from the 1984 primary campaign. Mondale used a popular TV commercial, “Where’s the beef?” to ridicule Hart’s vague “New Ideas” platform. Mondale’s quip caught Hart off guard, but the Colorado senator went on to win 26 primaries, including the important California election on June 5.
Even with Hart’s primary victories, Mondale maintained a lead in the delegate count, thanks to his strong showing in the Northeast and Midwest industrial states. But he was still about 40 delegates short of the total needed to win the nomination at the national convention in San Francisco, as the primary season was coming to a close. Mondale’s support from the unelected “superdelegates” in San Francisco finally put him over the top, giving him the Democratic presidential nomination on the first ballot.
After San Francisco, Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine Farraro, faced strong political headwinds going into the November general election. The U.S. economy had started to recover from a slump during Reagan’s first term and the incumbent Republican president was enjoying an approval rating of over 60%.
Another famous jab
Mondale himself was the subject of a famous jab that would go on to define the 1984 presidential election campaign. When Reagan’s advanced age became an issue during the campaign, Reagan was able to turn the issue to his advantage when he quipped during the second presidential debate, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience ” Mondale laughed at the joke but the wound hurt. “I knew at that point that we were in trouble,” Mondale would later write in his 2010 autobiography, “The Good Fight, A Life in Liberal Politics.”
Reagan went on to win re-election in a landslide, limiting the Mondale-Farraro ticket to only 10 electoral votes, cast by Mondale’s home state of Minnesota. In his autobiography, Mondale sounded a note of wistful resignation about his 1984 defeat. “I am grateful for that chance to make my case to America,” he wrote. “I spoke what was in my heart. I gave voice to the politics I had grown up with and the values I believed in. But it wasn’t enough to change America’s mind that year.”