In a review of a book on the life of pro-life leader Ellen McCormack, Michael J. New explains why she decided to vie for her party’s presidential nomination:
During the 1970s, many rank-and-file Democrats were pro-life. But going into the 1976 election cycle, no major Democratic presidential candidate expressed consistent opposition to abortion. Many leading Democrats, including Jimmy Carter, Sargent Shriver, Birch Bayh, Lloyd Bentsen, and Hubert Humphrey, typically offered vague or conflicting statements on the issue. Sometimes they would say on the record that they personally opposed abortion and disliked the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roev. Wade. But no Democratic presidential candidate would commit to supporting a Human Life Amendment or any other legislative strategy to protect the unborn.
Still, a pro-life candidate running in the Democratic presidential primaries could raise the salience of abortion and force the other candidates to clarify their position on the issue. A pro-life presidential candidate could also highlight the unwillingness of many congressional Democrats to support a Human Life Amendment to the US Constitution. Finally, since television stations were legally required to sell airtime to candidates seeking federal office, a pro-life presidential candidate could run ads that would be seen by millions of viewers. Pro-life television ads had been used very effectively during a 1972 referendum campaign that would have legalized abortion in Michigan. Early polls showed citizens favoring the pro-abortion measure by a 57–37 margin. However, after the television ads were run statewide, the referendum was opposed by 61 percent of voters. [ . . . ]
The mainstream media’s reaction to McCormack’s candidacy was telling. Volunteers raised over $5,000 from small donors for McCormack’s campaign in each of 20 different states—the equivalent of raising over $20,000 per state in today’s dollars. As such, Ellen McCormack became the first female presidential candidate to qualify for federal matching funds. Still, her campaign initially received little attention from mainstream media outlets—many of which incorrectly reported that no pro-life candidates were seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
The reaction of the Democratic Party’s leadership was even worse. The fact that McCormack’s campaign was using federal matching funds to run pro-life television commercials outraged many party leaders and the Federal Election Commission. They went so far as to change the election rules during the primary campaign with the specific intent of denying Ellen McCormack additional federal matching funds. Still, her pro-life commercials were seen by tens of millions of viewers that spring.
How would such a candidate fare today?