At the crossroads

Minnesota’s Walter Mondale famously failed to resurrect Hubert Humphrey’s liberal coalition, but also took the first, faltering steps toward a new progressive politics that appealed to younger, educated, middle-class voters.

The evening before the 1984 presidential election, Democratic candidate Walter Mondale told an audience at the Minneapolis Airport: “Tonight, I end what may be the longest campaign in American history. For thousands and thousands of miles, through long days and long weeks and long months and now long years, through all the debates, through all the campaigns and speeches, through all of the joys and heartaches, I could hear you, and I could also hear Hubert pushing me on.”

Mondale, who passed away in April aged 93, was often described as Hubert Humphrey’s protege and the bonds between the two Minnesotans were strong. In 1948, aged 20, “Fritz” Mondale, a minister’s son from Elmore, got his start in politics managing Humphrey’s Senate campaign in the state’s heavily Republican Second Congressional District. Appointed state Attorney General in 1960, he was appointed to Humphrey’s Senate seat on his election as Vice President in 1964. Four years later, Humphrey appointed Mondale co-chairman of his presidential campaign.

But Mondale’s political life was not a re-run of Humphrey’s. Humphrey’s politics were rooted in what Joe Rauh, vice president of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) — an anti-communist liberal group Humphrey helped found in 1947 — described as the “liberal-labor-Negro coalition that had elected every liberal president and made possible every liberal advance since the 1930s.” His political life spanned the high noon of political liberalism in the 1960s, based on this coalition, and its subsequent fall as that coalition disintegrated.

Mondale came to prominence as that disintegration became obvious. His attempts to reassemble the old coalition in 1984 were a spectacular failure, but his political life saw the first, faltering steps towards a new progressive politics, one that appealed to younger, more educated, middle-class voters — the kind who elected Joe Biden president in November.

1964 to 1984

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson was elected president in a landslide, with over 61 percent of the vote. But even then, there were signs that the coalition which underlay this success was fraying.

African-Americans were the first element of the old coalition to rebel. At the 1964 convention, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) insisted that its integrated delegation be seated for the state instead of the official, segregated one. The compromise, largely negotiated by Mondale, failed to placate the MFDP and irritated the Democratic party’s powerful southern wing.

The liberals were the next to rebel. Already active in the fight for civil rights, they became further radicalized over the war in Vietnam. Indeed, it was liberal Democrats who turfed Lyndon Johnson out of office in 1968, just four years after his landslide.

The last element to break was labor. Working-class whites recoiled from rising urban violence and the anti-American antics of liberals in settings like the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. They flirted with George Wallace in that year’s election before ultimately backing Humphrey: He won 61 percent of the vote in unionized neighborhoods.

But by 1972 liberals were fully in control of the Democratic Party. The delegates to the convention that year were minorities and richer, better-educated whites. A disproportionate number had advanced degrees and 31 percent of the delegates earned over $25,000 a year compared to just five percent of Americans overall. There were no farmers in Iowa’s delegation, but New York’s contained nine delegates who were associated with gay rights groups, and South Dakota’s were “anointed” by two Native Americans.

The verdict delivered by the American electorate in November was clear: Richard Nixon was reelected with 61 percent of the vote, carrying 49 states and winning 521 Electoral College votes to George McGovern’s 17. Part of this landslide was due to the labor vote. Unwilling to swallow their doubts about a Democratic candidate for a second successive election, Nixon became the first Republican presidential candidate in recent history to win the blue-collar vote, by a 5-to-4 margin. While McGovern won the union vote, he only did so by 50 to 48 percent.

Nixon resigned over Watergate, which also fatally tainted the presidency of his replacement, Gerald Ford. In 1976, with Mondale as his running mate, Jimmy Carter beat Ford, but he did not do it by reassembling the old coalition. A former governor of Georgia, Carter was a Washington outsider, a “drain the swamp” candidate, able to capitalize on Watergate. The Democrats “had only made temporary gains by getting the electoral support of upper-income Republicans who demanded political reform,” writes historian Ronald Radosh. “These new voters were disproportionately middle class and suburban. The concerns and interests of their candidates were not those of the old urban, blue-collar, and minority Democrats who represented the party mainstream in the thirties and forties.” In their exultation at retaking the White House, Democrats “did not notice that they had lost the votes of low- and moderate-income whites.”

As president, Carter proved himself incapable of dealing with a growing thro of domestic and foreign crises — stagflation at home and renewed Soviet aggression and oil crises abroad. A frustrated Mondale seriously considered resigning at one point. In 1980, Carter was crushed by Ronald Reagan, winning only six states with Republicans gaining 12 seats in the Senate and 33 in the House. Many Democrats, however, comforted themselves with the belief that Carter’s defeat was due to one off, freak events like the Iranian hostage crisis, and his own obvious shortcomings. They perceived no essential, structural issues, and believed that they could still win with the old coalition if only they could put it back together again.


Mondale was among a small group of Democrats who perceived, albeit dimly, the party’s structural problems. During the 1980 campaign, he gave a speech calling for a “redefinition of the tradition in American politics for which Hubert Humphrey stood.” At the heart of this, wrote Steven M. Gillon, “was the recognition that liberals had to pay closer attention to middle-class needs.” Mondale argued: “People do not cease to count once they leave the shadows of disadvantage and injustice.”

This gleam of light soon dimmed. To prepare for a presidential run in 1984 and to distance himself from the calamitous Carter presidency, Mondale undertook a widely derided “reeducation program” after 1980: “I’m going to try to emphasize studying and learning again,” he told the Minneapolis Tribune. In Time, William Henry called it “a gesture so goofy on its face…that few people took it seriously enough even to mock it.” And when the reeducated Mondale emerged from his chrysalis in 1982, it wasn’t clear what he’d learned. After a speech to the Democratic midterm convention, his speechwriter said:

“After listening, I’d be hard pressed to name a single fresh theme or idea which holds it together.” Strategically, Mondale was going to try to reassemble the old coalition in 1984.

But there were early signs that the coalition was broken beyond repair. At a straw poll in Milwaukee in June 1983, Mondale’s campaign manager, Bob Beckel, noted too many young delegates with nuclear freeze signs. A veteran told him: “You know, there are a lot of people here I’ve never seen before.” Beckel noted that there were a lot of other people who should have been there who weren’t. When Mondale saluted Humphrey as his mentor during his speech, “the silence was eloquent,” according to Newsweek reporters. “There weren’t a whole lot of Humphrey Democrats in the house.”

In the event, Mondale only secured the Democratic nomination at the end of a grueling battle with Gary Hart who, on his election to the Senate in 1974, had declared: “We are not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys.” If Hart was clear what he wasn’t, it was much less clear what he was, besides nebulous appeals to youth and change. Indeed, his candidacy was mortally wounded when, during a televised debate, Mondale simply asked him, “Where’s the beef?”

But Hart had identified what Newsweek reporters described as “…that new class known variously as yuppies (for young urban professionals), yuppies (for young upward-mobile professionals), or, in the term of art favored by the younger Hart campaigners, the Quiche Corps. They were at the leading edge of the nation’s passage from a smokestack to a microchip economy, from a heavy-industrial past to a high-technological future. They were not, like their parents, the children of depression or war; they felt no blood knot to the unions, the New Deal, or a party identified in their formative years with Vietnam, inflation and rising mortgage rates. The party was losing relevance to them, in Hart’s formulation, and was in danger of dying of precisely the sort of alliances Mondale had struck and the variety of promises he had made.” Hart, for example, saw Mondale’s union connections not as a strength, but as a weakness: “Fritz,” he said, “can’t even go to the bathroom without asking the plumbers’ union.”

Mondale’s attempts to reassemble the old coalition were further hampered by Reagan’s aggressive courting of the labor vote: He went as far as to ride through Ohio in Harry Truman’s old railroad car. Just before a speech at a Chrysler plant in Belvedere, Illinois, Mondale’s running mate Geraldine Ferraro was handed polling data showing one third of union auto workers planning to vote for Reagan. “I’m absolutely floored,” she told the workers, junking her prepared remarks, “I care about where America’s coming from. So could someone — anyone — anyone — let me know what the feelings are and why we’re losing one-third of the UAW workers?” “Tentatively at first,” Newsweek reported, “people began talking, a litany of grievances about Iran and abortion and freeloading on welfare. ‘You’re among friends here,’ one of them…told her. ‘I’m voting for Mondale and for yourself, okay? But what Reagan has done is said the things the workingman believes.’”

Seeing this, some Democrats questioned whether the coalition was worth reassembling. In June, a former Hart strategist, Pat Caddell, penned a memo for the Mondale campaign titled: “Current Political Situation.” In it, he argued that attempting to reassemble the old coalition was pointless. That coalition, which had amounted to a majority, had shrunk to a plurality. In a subsequent memo in July, Caddell argued that trying to reconstruct it amounted to “trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” Instead, Mondale ought to target “younger voters, moderates, independents, college-educated, suburbanites and women” — substantially the “yuppies,” “yumpies” or “Quiche Corps” who had voted for Hart in the primaries and the “disproportionately middle-class and suburban” voters who had elected Carter in 1976.

That November, Reagan achieved a historic victory. He won 59 percent of the vote, carried 49 states, and took 525 of the 538 electoral votes, the most of any presidential candidate in history. Minnesota alone remained loyal to the man from Elmore, and that by a margin of just 0.2 percent. The scale of Mondale’s failure to reassemble the old coalition, shown in his vote from key Democratic constituencies, was staggering. Reagan’s vote among 18- to 24-year-olds rose from 46 percent in 1980 to 66 percent; among Catholics from 49 to 57 percent; and with Southerners from 51 to 65 percent. In 1984 Mondale became the first primary candidate the AFL-CIO had ever endorsed, but it was worth little on Election Day: Reagan’s share of the “blue-collar” vote went up from an already healthy 45 percent in 1980 to 56 percent in 1984.

1984 to 2020

Political commentator Kevin Phillips once quipped that along with McGovern, Carter and Michael Dukakis, Mondale would be one of “the four faces on the Mount Losemore of American Politics.”

But the scale of Mondale’s defeat served a purpose. It buried the old coalition once and for all and, in the ashes of defeat, Democrats embraced Caddell’s prescription that they target “younger voters, moderates, independents, college-educated, suburbanites and women.” These voters elected Bill Clinton in 1992. When Mondale’s fellow Silent Generationer, Joe Biden, was finally elected president in 2020, exit polls showed that his victory was driven by young voters, “moderates” and suburban voters — the type that Carter stumbled upon, Hart identified, Mondale only belatedly grasped after, and Clinton finally snared. The question is how the demographic wooed by Clinton’s conservatism was attracted to Biden’s offer of politically correct big government last year.

Changing demographics made targeting more affluent voters a winning strategy. A week before Election Day in 1984, Richard Nixon had reached the same conclusion as Caddell, writing in a memo for the Reagan campaign that the Democrats had run “an establishment Democrat, Mondale, campaigning on traditional Democratic issues and appealing to the old Democratic coalition of minorities, labor, the disadvantaged, etc., which proved unbeatable for Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson. What this election demonstrates is that there are just not enough voters in those groups to make a majority.” Indeed, in 1967, Census Bureau data showed that just 11 percent of American households had annual incomes of more than $100,000 (in 2019 dollars) and 36 percent had incomes below $35,000. By 2019, the share of households earning over $100,000 annually was up to 34 percent and the share of those with incomes below $35,000 was down to 25 percent. As the United States moved “from a smokestack to a microchip economy, from a heavy-industrial past to a hightechnological future,” chasing the labor/ unionized/“blue-collar” vote, as Reagan did on Truman’s old train, was to chase a diminishing share of voters. In a country where an increasing number of voters are affluent or middle class, this is where elections are won and will be won.

Despondent following his defeat in 1984, Mondale asked McGovern: “George, how long does it take to get over this?” “I don’t know,” McGovern replied, “I’ll tell you when it happens.” Walter Mondale oversaw the last rites of his mentor’s political coalition. But, however unwittingly, he helped the Democratic Party move toward a new formula for electoral success. He might have found some comfort in that.

John Phelan is an Economist at Center of the American Experiment. He is a graduate of Birkbeck College, University of London, where he earned a BSc in Economics and of the London School of Economics where he earned an MSc.