The Watergate scandal, state of the economy, and a national yearning for change revolved around the Presidential election of 1976. In response to the horrors of Watergate and Vietnam that had disillusioned the American people with their government, the public wanted honest leaders who weren't in the Washington sphere. They had seen enough of the corruption that had taken place during the Nixon presidency. But who to trust?
Gerald Ford, the incumbent President, faced a serious challenge against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. The moderate Ford had replaced Nixon after he resigned in 1974, and had reassured the public that "our long national nightmare is over", but then quickly pardoned Nixon for any of the crimes he may have committed. His popularity plummeted almost immediately thereafter, and he had more liabilities as a presidential candidate for the 1976 election. Former governor of California Ronald Reagan was more conservative. Ford had early wins, yet Reagan did well in debates, often criticizing his challenger's foreign policy. The primary contest between them was mostly even and hard-fought - during the Republican Primary Ford won 15 states, and Reagan 12. After the Republican National Convention in Kansas City however, Ford narrowly defeated Reagan. He chose Senator Bob Dole to ensure conservative support.
On the other hand, nine Democrats sought the 1976 nomination, including former Georgia Governor James Earl Carter Jr. When Carter entered the Democratic Party presidential primaries, he was considered to have little to no chance against better- known politicians. With name recognition of only 2 percent, Jimmy pushed ahead with determination. Carter became the immediate frontrunner after Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire Primary. His primary challengers included Sen. Henry M. Jackson of Washington, Gov.George Wallace of Alabama, and Gov. Jerry Brown of California, who were the favorites for the nomination. In the wake of the Watergate scandal however, his position as an unknown outsider became an advantage. He traveled 50, 000 miles, visited 37 states, and delivered over 200 speeches before any other candidates even announced they were in the race. Carter won more than half of the primaries, and one-by-one the other Democrats dropped out. Eventually, at the party convention, Carter won the nomination on the first ballot and chose the liberal Walter Mondale of Minnesota as his running mate.
Eugene McCarthy ran as an Independent candidate for President. He was the 1968 candidate for the New Party, and ex- U.S. Senator. McCarthy mainly battled ballot access laws and encouraged voters to reject the two-party system. During his campaign he promised to create full employment by shortening the work week, was in favor of nuclear disarmament, and stated who he would nominate to various Cabinet spots if elected. Other minor party Presidential candidates included Roger MacBride for the Libertarian Party, Lester Maddox for the American Independent, and '72 VP nominee Thomas Anderson for the American Party. The candidates that ran for minor political parties had little support and acknowledgement.
The Republicans and Gerald Ford took positions on important issues that clearly differed from Carter and the Democrats. Issues of the day included the economy and jobs, energy, and social issues. On the issue of the economy and jobs, the Republican Platform emphasized economic growth driven by private investment, reduction of government spending, and cuts in taxes. For reducing unemployment, Ford believed that the best way would be to expand the private sector. Economic inflation was high, nearly eight percent and Ford's response was to distribute buttons that said "WIN" (Whip Inflation Now), which did not gain a positive reaction from the public. On the issue of energy, Ford argued for minimizing government intrusion in the energy industry, and advocated the expansion of nuclear power. The President had conservative stance on social issues; he favored constitutional amendments, banning busing, and allowed states to govern abortions.
Jimmy Carter and the Democrats argued that economic growth could be stimulated and inflation controlled by increasing the number of jobs. Their platform dedicated candidates "to the right of all adult Americans willing, able, and seeking work to have opportunities for useful jobs at living wages". For Carter, this promise eventually required a commitment to a large public service jobs program establishing government as an employer of last resort, and to wage and price controls. He advocated stronger growth at the risk of inflation. On the issue of energy, Carter argued for strong regulation of the energy industry, and for minimizing dependence on nuclear power. Jimmy had a moderate position on most issues, but they were definitely distinct from Ford's conservative positions. He favored voluntary busing for desegregation, and personally opposed abortion.
Upon beginning the general election campaign, Gerald Ford held an advantage, being that he was already the incumbent president. He presided over events dealing with the U.S. Bicentennial, the Fourth of July fireworks in Washington, D.C., and even hosted a White House state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, which were all part of Ford's "Rose Garden" strategy by presenting himself as a "tested leader". Even with this advantage, Ford trailed by over 30 points. Jimmy Carter, unlike Ford, had run as a reformer who wasn't "tainted" by the corruption in Washington, and built his campaign on his casual and honest approach that appealed to many voters.Although Ford was unconnected with the Nixon administration, many saw him as too close to it, especially after his pardon of Nixon. Ford tried his best to move away from the former president, but Carter continuously painted Ford as an extension of Nixon. Carter consistently led in the polls, and there were three debates that played a significant role on how American voters viewed him. It was the 1st time in 16 years that candidates engaged in general election debates.
Carter held a substantial lead over Ford, but as the campaign continued, the race tightened. When Jimmy promised a full pardon to opponents of the Vietnam War draft dodgers, Ford's poll numbers were affected. However, Carter wasn't perfect either. He consented to a Playboy magazine interview in which Carter admitted that he had "lusted in his heart", and disconcerted many voters.
The first debate was dedicated to domestic policy. During this debate Carter spoke of the "bureaucratic mess" in Washington and "lack of leadership". Ford fired back and replied that Carter lacked details in the majority of his responses, and was vague on many issues. International policy was the topic for the second debate, in which Ford was expected to do well. Instead, Carter confidently challenged the President on his international policy leadership. Ford made a huge mistake when he stumbled over a question about Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, and answered- "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and never will be under a Ford administration." Ford chose to stick to his response, and it cost him. A post-debate poll on Oct.15 showed Carter 6 percentage points ahead of Ford, 48 to 42%. The candidates discussed a wide array of issues during the third debate including problems of cities, minorities, and gun control. Carter later said that if it hadn't been for the debates, he would have lost.
The election was very close. In the end, Ford eliminated most of Carter's lead in a surge, but it wasn't enough. Carter won with a coalition of the entire Old South (except Virginia) and several northern industrial powers. His success in the South had a lot to do with the overwhelming support from African Americans. Jimmy Carter won 40,831,881 popular votes, winning by nearly 1.7 million, while Ford had 39,148,634 votes. Eugene McCarthy won 740, 460 (0.91%) of the popular vote. Jimmy was elected the 39th president of the U.S. with a comfortable margin of 297 votes to Ford's 241. Although Ford lost, he carried 27 out of 50 states, the most ever by a losing candidate.Surprisingly, the election didn't generate a great deal of public interest. The turnout of voting-age population was 81,555,789 out of 152,309,190 (53.6%). In fact, voter turnout was the lowest in almost 30 years.
The 1976 Presidential election, following the scandalous Nixon administration, taking place during a worsening economy, and wrapped with the disillusionment of the American people in their government, can be summed up in the words of one American, Mr. Robert Braun- "Nixon was dark and brooding; heavy-bearded and paranoid. Carter was bright and fresh, fair of face, with a smile to light up the room. Nixon was covered with scandal; Carter was brilliantly clean. It was such a breath of fresh air to listen to Carter after all the years of Vietnam and Nixon darkness."Sources
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