Remembering Cliff Fitch’s forgettable ‘80 campaign

By KEITH BALL,

The 2020 campaign for president is getting started and a record number of candidates have qualified, but predictability none are from Mississippi.

Forty years ago the presidential election had something remarkable and yet forgettable – a presidential candidate from Mississippi.

In 1980, Governor Cliff Finch ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Finch announced his campaign for president only a few weeks before leaving office as governor.

The Finch presidential campaign faced near impossible odds against the incumbent President Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Governor Jerry Brown of California – all of whom had higher nationwide name recognition and greater fund raising abilities.

Finch’s campaign for president received few headlines. Most media attention centered on the frontrunners, Carter and Kennedy. Finch would receive a total of 48,032 votes in nine state primaries, representing just 0.25% of the total votes cast in Democratic primaries and caucuses.

His best showing was in the Arkansas primary where he received 4.3% of the vote.  The Finch presidential campaign fizzled out and after 101 days of campaigning he withdrew from the race. Finch’s campaign was the last time a Mississippian ran for president.

Finch did not get enough votes in the primaries and caucuses to receive any delegates at the 1980 Democratic National Convention held in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The delegates at the convention re-nominated Carter for president, but he was defeated in the November 1980 general election by the Republican nominee, former California Governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan won the presidency handily, 489 electoral votes to 49 electoral votes.

It is ironic that Finch’s campaign for president is largely forgotten, because his 1975 campaign for governor is still remembered in Mississippi for his then ground-breaking television ad campaign.

The television ads showed Finch doing manual labor, like driving a bull dozer, digging ditches, plowing a field, working on a shrimp boat, pumping gas, and sacking groceries.

The ads featured his slogan, “the working man’s friend,” and drove home a staunchly populist message to voters that appealed to many working class whites and blacks.   The popularity of the ad campaign caught most of the Mississippi political establishment by surprise.

The ads allowed Finch to pull off a major upset victory in the Democratic primary over the sitting Lieutenant Governor, William Winter.

Before his 1975 campaign for governor, Finch had never won any statewide office and had even lost a campaign for lieutenant governor in 1971.

Finch’s 1980 campaign for president is an interesting historical footnote.

The greater legacy of the 1980 presidential election is Reagan’s general election victory flipped Mississippi from a Democratic state to a Republican state in presidential elections. Carter had won Mississippi in 1976 against President Gerald Ford, but Mississippi has gone Republican in every presidential election since 1980.

Keith Ball a graduate of Petal High School, USM, and Ole Miss Law. He is an attorney and lifelong resident of Petal, MS.

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