Speaking at a news conference in Merrillville, Indiana, the 64-year-old Anderson — a longtime member of the John Birch Society and one of nearly a dozen independent and minor-party presidential hopefuls in the year of America’s Bicentennial — also took a swipe at President Gerald R. Ford, calling the Republican incumbent “a fumbler at best.”
Anderson, who appeared on the ballot in eighteen states that autumn and received write-in votes in several others, acknowledged that he had little chance of winning the White House, telling reporters in the Hoosier State that the real objective of his long-shot candidacy was to call the country back to the ideals on which it was founded.
Promising to “turn this country around,” the longtime farm magazine publisher and right-wing author from the small tourist town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, had been nominated at his party’s national convention in Salt Lake City a few months earlier, easily defeating a crowded field that included Baptist preacher Billy Bowler and imprisoned tax protestor Marvin Cooley, both of Arizona.
Described as “a modern-day Will Rogers,” Anderson had a marvelous sense of humor. “Abortion is murder and I’m against it,” he told a cheering crowd of more than 260 delegates in accepting his party’s nomination earlier that summer, “but Henry Kissinger makes me wish birth control were retroactive.”
Rufus E. Shackelford, a millionaire tomato grower from Wauchula, Florida, who owned his own plane and promised to spend lavishly on behalf of the American Party ticket, was named as Anderson’s vice-presidential running mate. Operating extensively in California, Florida and Texas, Shackelford was believed to be the largest tomato grower in the United States.
Don L. Lee of Indianapolis, a 36-year-old auto worker who was waging his second campaign for the U.S. Senate, also participated in the Merrillville press conference on October 1 and — like Anderson — took a few barbs at his major-party opponents, incumbent Democrat Vance Hartke and Republican challenger Dick Lugar.
“If Hartke had been around when there were stage coaches,” declared Lee, “he would have subsidized them.” Lugar, he added, was “nothing more than a corporate socialist.”
Lee, who died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning about a year after the 1976 election, had polled more than 49,000 votes as the American Party’s U.S. Senate nominee in 1974.
Fighting over the remnants of George Wallace’s third-party movement, the ultra-conservative Anderson found himself competing against the American Independent Party’s Lester Maddox, the scrappy and colorful former governor of Georgia, for ballot lines and publicity throughout the summer and fall of 1976.
Though conservatives envisioned the party that grew out of Wallace’s 1968 third-party candidacy as a permanent structure to offer a serious alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, the weak bond holding the American and American Independent parties together became unglued in December 1972, shortly after California’s William K. Shearer lost a floor fight to Anderson for the party’s national chairmanship at a convention in Dallas.
By the autumn of 1973, the split had become irreparable, with the two factions effectively evolving into two separate parties.
During the 1976 campaign, both organizations claimed to be the party that delivered more than a million votes for lame duck congressman John G. Schmitz in the 1972 presidential election. Anderson had been Schmitz’s vice-presidential running mate in that contest.
A past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association and recipient of the Liberty Award of the Congress of Freedom every year since its inception, Anderson insisted that he was the only serious conservative in the 1976 race and accused Maddox of running solely to make life miserable for fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter, his longtime nemesis.
While Maddox managed to grab headlines by engaging in such antics as offering “Jimmy Carter” sandwiches consisting of “a little bit of peanut butter and a lot of bologna” in the suburban Atlanta restaurant that he owned, Anderson complained bitterly that his own candidacy was being ignored by the mainstream media.
When all the votes were counted, the conservative publisher finished sixth nationally with 160,773 votes, approximately 10,000 votes behind his better-known rival from Georgia.
Anderson may have had the last laugh, however, when he finished ahead of his American Independent Party rival in Maddox’s home state of Georgia, garnering 1,168 write-in votes to a mere 1,097 cast for the former governor.