In the year 1976, a very close race transpired between the former President Gerald Ford and an unexpected dark horse, Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter was an unknown former naval officer and one-term governor of Georgia who rose up to become the Democratic Presidential Candidate. Gerald R. Ford was just ending his term as President, which came about from a very corrupt situation. Following the Watergate scandal that consumed Nixon and shocked millions of American’s, Gerald R. Ford, as House Minority Leader, became President after the Vice-President Agnew resigned. While Ford was popular when he first became President, his popularity had slowly dwindled over the years. This being the first election after the Watergate scandal, it was a good time for the unknown Washington outsider, Jimmy Carter, to rise up and steal the presidency for himself.
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Starting back at the beginning, Jimmy Carter’s journey was not a nice walk in the park. He was not well known and was unlikely to even become the Democratic presidential candidate. Knowing he’d have to spend a lot of time campaigning to get the attention of the voters, he decided to start campaigning more than a year before the election. At the end of 1974, he began to campaign and was the first candidate to do so. As the Democratic Convention approached, there was little hope that Carter would win. He was known as “Jimmy who?” and was running against other well-known politicians. All of a sudden, his luck changed at the Iowa Precinct Caucuses when he won more votes than all of the other candidates.6 Fortune continued with him at the New Hampshire primary in February, 1976, where he beat out five of his rivals. At the Democratic Party Convention, he won enough votes to beat out the California Governor, Jerry Brown, making him the official Democratic Presidential Candidate.
President Gerald R. Ford also had a hard time of becoming a Candidate. Many people questioned him during this time because he became President without being voted on after the Watergate scandal. During the Republican Convention of 1976, his only competition came from Ronald Reagan. It was a very close vote between the two, but in the end Ford won and was again in the running for the Presidency.
Another man running, named Eugine McCarthy, was the chairman of a third political party called the Independent Party and announced his candidacy on January 1975. This party came about because some people believed that the Democratic Party was too willing to compromise in order to get elected. McCarthy’s main agenda was to be very liberal and, as the season began, he did everything he could to keep his name in the paper. At the beginning of the election, McCarthy chose William C. Ford as his running mate. However, that didn’t last because William Ford decided he wasn’t going to run and bailed out. That made McCarthy mad. He decided that the office of vice president should be abolished and didn’t choose another running mate. McCarthy’s campaign wasn’t well known and he only got his name on four ballots.4
Unfortunately for McCarthy, he was never a competitive with the other two candidates because he wasn’t allowed to participate in the Debates held between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. The final blow came when Jimmy Carter’s campaign started to challenge McCarthy’s campaign. Some of McCarthy’s supporters left him for Jimmy Carter in fear that Gerald Ford would win the election. In the end, McCarthy got about one percent of the popular vote and pretty much ended the Independent Party.4
Now that the two Candidates had been chosen, the different parties began to focus more heavily on their platforms. The Democratic Party Platform wanted to increase the amount of jobs available in the U.S. and cut down the unemployment rates by 3% by the time of the next election. They pledged to favor a tax reform and cut from the defense budget. On the social side of the platform, the Democrats declared that they would not create an antiabortion amendment. They did, however, want to regulate gun control and create a national health care insurance. For foreign affairs, the Democrats wanted to create a Panama Canal treaty that guarded U.S. interests while still supporting Latin America. Jimmy Carter wanted to continue to improve the relations with the Soviet Union, in the hopes that they could relax the Cold War tensions that still lingered. He hoped to spread the promotion of human Civil Rights throughout the world without using military force.2
The Republican Party Platform was almost the complete opposite of the Democratic Party Platform. Economically, the Republican Party promised to lower tax rates and create more jobs so people could get jobs easier and be able to pay taxes, while increasing the government funding. Another key point of the Republican Party Platform was the opposition to a national health care. Their main argument against this was that it would increase government spending by seventy billion dollars in the first year alone. Some other parts of the platform were to increase defense spending, oppose gun control, retention of the Panama Canal, and constitutional amendments to ban bussing and abortion.1
The real campaign for the Presidency started in September. A Gallop Poll was taken and showed Jimmy Carter leading with a support of 49% of the population, while Gerald Ford trailed with 39%.6 In one of Gerald Ford’s speeches he said, “The question in this campaign is not who has the better vision of America. The question is who will act to make the vision a reality.” Over the next two months not much was done and one newspaper said that it put the voters to sleep.
Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford talked together and decided to have a series of debates, like the one’s held between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. It had been over a decade and the revival created a tradition of debates that is still used today. This was also the first time a debate was held in a public setting instead of in a studio. The debates would be over both domestic and foreign policy issues affecting America.
The first debate occurred on September 27th in Philadelphia over domestic issues. It got off to a slow start with a 27 minute delay because the sound system shut off. Jimmy Carter spent his time talking of how Washington hadn’t had a real leader in four years and called Ford out on his so called “insensitivity” to the unemployed. Ford replied by accusing Carter of not knowing the facts and having the details to back it up. Ford pushed for more jobs by expanding the private sector, controlling government spending, and lowering the federal tax. At the end of the first debate, most people believed Ford won and that Carter was too nervous and very hesitant with his answers. This caused Ford to become more popular and make the race much closer.8
The next debate took place in San Francisco and covered International Policy. Before the debate took place, it was inferred that Gerald Ford would easily win this debate. However, things quickly went south and President Ford made a huge mistake. From the start, Jimmy Carter went on the offensive and challenged Ford by saying Ford had surrendered International Affairs to the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Later in the debate Ford stumbled over a question about the Soviet Union and made a mistake. Many think this mistake kept him from becoming President. This caused many voters to believe that Ford was unintelligent and news of his costly mistake was talked about by many news reporters. Another Gallop Poll was taken after this debate showing that Carter was in the lead with 48% versus Ford’s 42%.8
In the third and final debate, the topic was about everything and anything. Ford was asked questions on his defense of Nixon and the Watergate Scandal while Carter was asked why he thought his lead had dropped down so far. This debate also asked questions on gun control, the Supreme Court, and possible amendments to the Constitution. To wrap up the debate, both candidates were asked what sacrifices they would require of the nation when times were difficult. Ford responded, “Those necessary sacrifices to preserve the peace … an adequate military capability … and a few billion dollars more in defense funding.” On the domestic side, sacrifices would be those that would “hold the lid on spending so that we could … have a long overdue and totally justified tax decrease for the middle-income people.” Jimmy Carter responded by saying there wouldn’t be as many sacrifices in his Administration. His main goal was to create more jobs and work on getting inflation lower with strong leadership. The only sacrifice would be to have a couple guidelines and a voluntary price restraint. Overall, this debate was very subdued with minimal accusations compared to the other two.8
After these three debates, many voters were still undecided. This election would be no landslide victory. Jimmy Carter just needed to get to Election Day fast, while Gerald Ford needed just a few more days to bridge the gap. On the day of the election, there was a big voter turnout with over four million more people voting than the year before. However, that was from more people coming of age. There was a higher percentage of voting age people voting in 1972 than in 1976. The numbers for the popular vote was very close between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter with Gerald Ford picking up 48%, Jimmy Carter 50%, and Eugine McCarthy picking up the other two. However, while the Electoral College votes were still close, there was a wider gap with Jimmy Carter holding 297 votes versus Gerald Ford’s 240.7 The strange thing about this election was that it wasn’t based as much off of north and south. It was split up into east and west, which hasn’t happened very often in the history of Presidential Elections. With that Jimmy Carter won the Presidency even though at the beginning it seemed hopeless.
The Election of 1976 was very similar to the Election of 2012. In both election years, the voting was extremely close which made it not much of a victory for the two men elected. Another striking similarity is that the elections occurred during a time of war and turmoil. In 1976 the Watergate Scandal had just blown over leaving the public with a bad taste in its mouth. Now, in the year 2012, our country is currently at war with Afghanistan due to the terrorist acts of Al-Qaida. On September 11th 2012, on the eleventh year anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center, terrorists attacked again and killed the ambassador of Libya along with other violence around the globe. Both of the Elections occurred during momentous times in history. One last similarity between these two elections was the debates. In 1976, the debates had a huge impact on the election. Jimmy Carter himself, believed that if there hadn’t been the debates, he wouldn’t have become President. In 2012, the debates were similar in the way it helped the challenger for the Presidency and gave each a significant bump in the polls. However, in 2012, the incumbent, President Obama, won the election, while in 1976, the challenger, President Carter, won the election.
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Overall, the election of 1976 was a very important Election, just like every other Election in history. It was memorable in the way it started the precedent for debates in an election, not only between the Presidents, but also the Vice-President’s. In this election, there was a fierce battle between two very deserving candidates. In the end, the Incumbent President, Gerald Ford fell to a new era that marked the beginning of the Democratic Hold of Office. In the next two elections the Republican’s regained control of the Presidency, but the Republican Party’s popularity has continued to dwindle. Once again, a Democrat (President Obama) has been voted President.
David C. Whitney (2009), The American Presidents 11th Edition: Biographies of the Chief Executives, form George Washington through Barack Obama.
William A. Degregorio (2009), The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents: 7th Edition.
Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley (2008), The Presidency A To Z Fourth Edition.
By: Ginny Glockzin
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