Ellen McCormack, Pro-Life Presidential Candidate, Dies at 84

Ellen McCormack, an obscure Long Island housewife who twice sought the presidency as an anti-abortion candidate, died last Sunday of congestive heart failure. She was 84.

McCormack made history in 1976 by becoming the first female presidential candidate to receive Secret Service protection and to qualify for federal matching funds during her spirited bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Saying that she had entered the race “to defend the unborn child,” the mother of four and grandmother of eleven surprised political pundits that year by garnering more than 238,000 votes in eighteen primaries while capturing 22 delegates to the Democratic national convention at Madison Square Garden in New York that nominated former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter.

Supported by a small group of Catholic women who comprised the nascent Pro-Life Action Committee, an organization that originally grew out of a small book club on Long Island, the 49-year-old McCormack qualified for $247,000 in federal matching funds in 1976, most of which she used to produce anti-abortion television commercials during the primary campaign.

She actively campaigned in twenty-two states that year.

Running in a crowded field that included such political heavyweights as Jimmy Carter, Mo Udall, Frank Church, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Jerry Brown, Sargent Shriver, Alabama’s George C. Wallace and several other well-known Democrats, McCormack acknowledged that she didn’t expect to win the Democratic nomination, admitting in a post-election interview that her candidacy in the first presidential campaign following the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that established abortion as a fundamental right was entirely an educational effort.

In 1980, McCormack sought the White House again as the nominee of the tiny Right-to-Life Party, a single-issue entity organized by McCormack and several others a decade earlier. Appearing on the ballot in only three states that autumn, McCormack received a relatively meager 32,327 votes.

Despite running against tremendous odds, McCormack never regretted her decision to seek the presidency in 1976 and 1980. “You now how it is,” she told author Frank Smallwood in a 1981 interview. “If you have a job that has to be done, sometimes you have to do it yourself.”


  1. In 1980, McCormack’s strategy was to siphon off – or appear to have the potential of attracting – enough pro-life voters to make a difference in a close election. Leverage was the tactic.

    The selection of George Bush as Reagan’s VP, and the GOP reticence to declare itself against abortion in every circumstance, was her call to action when behind-the-scenes negotiations failed. There were extraordinary efforts made by key right to life leaders to dampen McCormack’s outreach and impact. The New York line was the most worrisome to the Reagan people. The final results in KY were very close (albeit she ended up not being the key factor – John Anderson was), the potential of Reagan losing by 3,000, 5,000, or 10,000 votes in some states was certainly a possibility early in the election season.

    Had Ellen McCormack been on 8-10 state ballots as she planned – raised just enough money to effectively target single issue voters – things might have been different.

  2. Pingback: Education and the Next President: Secretary of Education | Interfreebies

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