Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1976

Jimmy Carter took his first step on the road to the White House in 1972 by becoming chair of the Democratic Governor's Campaign Committee, and then his second step in 1974 by getting himself named as the campaign chairman of the Democratic National Committee. This position gave Carter access to key Democrats nationwide, and the major Democratic gains in the first post-Watergate election added to his reputation. Just before the end of the year, Jimmy Carter announced his candidacy for president. Public reaction to his candidacy revealed that exposure to his party was not enough to gain him wide recognition. He was all but ignored and his national profile was almost non-existent. In fact, the leading newspaper in his home state ran a headline the day after his announcement that proclaimed, "Jimmy Who Is Running For What!?"

Just a few years before, Governor Carter had appeared on a television game show in which the object was to guess the occupation of a "mystery guest," and Carter stumped the panel. However, Carter's anonymity turned out to give him an advantage in the 1976 election. In response to the twin nightmares of Vietnam and Watergate that had shattered public confidence in government (see Nixon biography, Domestic and Foreign Affairs sections, for details), Americans gravitated toward leaders who were outside the Washington sphere. Answering the nation's need, Carter's slogan was "A Leader, For A Change."

Nine other Democrats were seeking the nomination in 1976, most of them better known than Carter. But he approached the race like so many challenges before-with grim determination. Portraying himself as an outsider who could "clean up the mess in Washington," Carter simply out-hustled his competition. He won the first skirmishes, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and kept rolling, winning more than half the primaries. Instead of entering selected primaries, Carter recognized that under new Democratic rules, he could gather some delegates even in states where he would not come in first. And so he campaigned everywhere. One by one, the other Democrats dropped out, leaving Carter the front-runner, even though he had not won a majority of delegates in the primaries.

At the party convention that summer, he won the nomination on the first ballot. For his vice presidential running mate he chose Walter Mondale, a United States Senator from Minnesota. Mondale offered a "Northern presence" on the ticket to give it geographic balance, and his liberal record on labor issues helped calm the fears of labor unions that were uneasy about a president from the traditionally anti-organized labor south.

Carter vs. Ford

The incumbent president, Gerald Ford, was the first "unelected" president in the United States. A political insider, he was appointed to the vice presidency by Richard Nixon and consented to by the Congress under provisions of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, after a scandal forced elected Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to resign. Ford assumed the presidency after Nixon resigned.

As a presidential candidate, Ford had a lot of liabilities. He had given Nixon a full pardon shortly after assuming office, and many people believed that the pardon had been the price Ford had to pay to gain the presidency. His popularity had plummeted immediately thereafter. Even though he had been a football player in college and was a skilled athlete, mass media portrayals of the president made him out as weak and clumsy. In Lyndon Johnson's gibe, Ford was a man who "couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time." For example, he was often depicted as physically and socially awkward because the president had an uncanny ability to be photographed while stumbling, with photos showing him doing so when boarding Air Force One. Additionally, every weekend, the popular new television show called Saturday Night Live featured a skit lampooning his missteps. All of this made it difficult for Ford to command respect from pundits and voters alike. Meanwhile, economic inflation was high, at nearly eight percent. One of Ford's responses had been to distribute buttons that said "WIN" (for "Whip Inflation Now"), a poor choice of words that did not elicit positive public reaction. In one public opinion poll, only 5 percent of voters considered Ford "experienced." Moreover, obtaining the Republican nomination was not an easy task for the incumbent Ford.

Fair or not, the campaign turned on the bitter legacy of Richard Nixon. Not surprisingly, as Ford tried to move away from the former president, Carter subtly tried to pin Ford to the failures and disgrace of the Nixon administration. He called for "a government that is as honest and decent and fair and competent and truthful and idealistic as are the American people." As with most campaigns, both candidates sought to define the other as something the voters didn't want. Carter painted Ford as an extension of Nixon. Ford portrayed Carter as an inexperienced liberal who would create new government programs paid for by tax increases.

Campaign Missteps

Carter had a double-digit lead going into the fall, but then made a serious error. He consented to an interview in Playboy magazine, and discussed a number of personal issues. For many voters, Carter's admission to having lusted "in his heart" was disconcerting, and Carter's lead slipped to nothing. Three nationally televised debates failed to have much effect on the polls, but Ford made a bad gaffe of his own, claiming, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Hounded mercilessly by the press in the days that followed, he stubbornly stood by what he had said, and the jokes about him intensified.

Carter's difficulties continued as well. Two days before the election, an African American minister was denied entry to the Plains Baptist Church, of which the candidate was a member. Carter's campaign handlers accused Ford's of engineering a publicity stunt to make Carter appear hypocritical about his stance on race.

The election was very close. Ford's strategy was to try to win five of eight elector-rich states-California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. He won four, but not five. Carter won with an interesting coalition of the entire Old South (excepting conservative Virginia) and northern industrial powers such as New York and Pennsylvania.

Carter's prospects seemed bright. People were eager for new leadership, and he enjoyed large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Pundits talked of a "one and a half" party system, with the Democrats so dominant and the Republicans seemingly doomed by Watergate to spend years in the political wilderness.

The Campaign and Election of 1980

Three days after the embassy takeover in Iran, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Incumbents rarely face a challenge from within their own party, but Kennedy was encouraged by Carter's weak poll ratings. When told of the Kennedy challenge, Carter snapped to reporters: "I'll whip his ass."

Kennedy came close to defeating Carter as the party split into two wings. The day after the president lost the New York primary, a tabloid headline brayed, "Big apple to Carter: Get Smarter!" The president limped into that summer's convention weakened by the troubles at home and abroad, but he did have more delegates than Kennedy, and if they stuck to their pledges to vote for him, he would win the nomination. Kennedy desperately tried to get the convention to repeal the system of pledged delegates, arguing that if delegates could vote freely, they would dump Carter. But the convention refused to change its rules and Carter won renomination. To get Kennedy's endorsement Carter was forced to make many policy concessions to the liberal senator. Much of the Democratic platform reflected Kennedy's views, and some of it was an outright repudiation of the Carter record.

The Gipper Wins It

Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, had cruised to the Republican nomination almost effortlessly. He swatted off a challenge from George Bush, then named his rival as his running mate. "The Gipper" (a nickname derived from a movie role Reagan had once played) wrapped iron accusations of the president in velvet cowboy charm. He criticized Carter daily for the ongoing hostage crisis. Reagan referred to a city in Alabama that had hosted a Carter rally as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, one of several falsehoods that never seemed to hurt the challenger.

Carter tried to respond by painting Reagan as an unstable warmonger, but nothing seemed to stick to the former movie actor. The Republican replied by accusing the president of mean-spiritedness, and that did stick. Meanwhile John Anderson, a former Republican member of Congress running as an independent candidate for the presidency, threatened to draw votes away from Carter in some key northern states.

A televised debate between the Carter and Reagan was set for a few days before the election, and it all but finished Carter. The president had prepared hard for the debate, recognizing it as the last card in his losing hand. But Reagan was an infinitely superior television candidate. Someone asked Carter a question about the arms race with the Soviets, and he claimed that he had helped decide policy towards it by discussing it with Amy, his eight-year-old daughter. When Carter acted querulous and sounded shrill, Reagan turned to him and said in a mock tone of exasperation, "There you go again." At the end of the debate, Reagan looked into the camera expertly and asked viewers, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The next day, Carter was stunned at the latest poll numbers-the very bottom had dropped out. The polls did not lie. When the election returns were released, the president had lost by nearly 10 percent of the popular vote and by 440 electoral college votes. Even had Anderson not been in the race (he drew votes equally from both major party candidates), Carter would have lost badly.

It was the first loss by an elected presidential incumbent since Hoover had been defeated in 1932. Although the United States was not in an economic depression, it could fairly be said that poor economic performance and problematic leadership by the president had caused his defeat. As the New York Times stated, "On Election Day, Mr. Carter was the issue."