Happy Bicentennial, America! What better way to celebrate than with extreme distrust for the government? The 1976 election pitted the country’s two nicest politicians against each other. As it turns out, they were also two of the most gaffe-prone candidates in history! Find out which convinced the country to let them be Commander-in-Chief!
The Last Four Years
After a lucky economic turnaround just before the 1972 election, Stagflation was back with a vengeance. High inflation led to rising unemployment and a full-blown recession. The situation only worsened when Middle Eastern oil producers boycotted the US in response to Nixon’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Oil prices skyrocketed and lines at gas stations became a regular occurrence. Overseas, Nixon was also struggling to salvage the most recent proposed treaty between North and South Vietnam. Eager to end the war before the new Congress convened, Nixon told the South Vietnamese President that if he did not agree to the settlement, the US Congress would cut off aid. To the North, he promised “grave consequences,” a threat backed up with the Christmas Bombing of Hanoi in 1972. Negotiations quickly concluded in January. The Paris Peace Accords brought an end to the war on January 23, 1973. US ground forces subsequently withdrew from the Southeast Asia.
But the economy and foreign policy were on the back of Americans’ minds during Nixon’s second term. The suspicious break-in of the Democratic Campaign Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in 1972 became a much larger scandal. The ensuing investigation led all the way to the president. In July, 1973, investigators discovered that Nixon had secret audio recordings of the Oval Office. Nixon resisted the release of these tapes, citing executive privilege. Filled with paranoia, he fired two Attorneys General in order find someone who would remove the special prosecutor on the case. The event became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. Public opinion began to turn on the once-popular president, though he infamously declared, “I’m not a crook.” The following summer, the Supreme Court finally forced Nixon to release the tapes. The tapes had plenty of damaging content, but an eighteen minute stretch was suspiciously missing. The White House’s initial excuse was that Nixon’s personal secretary had accidentally destroyed it. Eventually, the “Smoking Gun” tape was released and it contained blatant obstruction of justice by Nixon. Soon, the House Judiciary Committee recommended articles of impeachment. Knowing he did not have the votes to stay in office, Nixon resigned the presidency on August 8, 1974.
Nixon’s resignation was unprecedented in American history. His successor was Vice President Gerald Ford. But wait! What about Spiro Agnew? Nixon’s running mate, and first vice president, also resigned due to allegations of corruption from his time as Maryland governor. The threat of an Agnew presidency would have actually been a deterrent for liberal Democrats in Congress to remove Nixon. Instead, Agnew was replaced with House Minority Leader Gerald Ford of Michigan. Having never been elected to the Executive Branch, Ford was suddenly president. In his inaugural address, Ford reassured the public that, “Our long national nightmare is over.” The honeymoon did not last long, however. One month into his term, Ford pardoned Nixon for any crimes he may have committed as president. He believed that Nixon had suffered enough and that the controversy of a trial would inhibit him from governing. Though he had been well-liked as a congressman, Ford’s popularity plummeted following the pardon. Many people assumed that he had been offered a secret deal by Nixon. He even had to testify before the House Judiciary Committee to deny such allegations. Ford’s relationship with Congress quickly soured. His situation only worsened when Democrats dominated the 1974 midterms. Within his own party, Ford struggled to unify moderates and conservatives. He needed Nixon’s leftover staff to maintain order, even though he was slowly replacing them with his own appointees. As you might expect, this led to animosity. For his own vice-presidential pick, Ford chose former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, leader of the party’s dying liberal faction. Unsurprisingly, this choice alienated conservatives.
Ford had a tough road ahead of him. He inherited the worst economy since WWII. Inflation, unemployment, and oil prices all remained high. Ford responded by proposing a tax hike and a reduction in federal taxes. His administration used the WIN (Whip Inflation Now) campaign to sell the idea to the American public through merchandise like buttons. The idea was a failure. Americans saw it as nothing more than an insulting gimmick. After the midterms, Ford changed course and instead offered a tax cut to jump start the economy. Democrats criticized him for flip-flopping and doing too little, too late. In March, Congress passed Ford’s tax cut, but also increased government spending. Ford felt that this was irresponsible, but had no choice but to sign. He continued to fight with Congress over economic policy throughout his term. To tackle the energy crisis, Ford asked for a tariff on imported oil and an end to price controls on domestic producers (though they would face a new tax, in order to appeal to the public). Ford believed that this plan would stimulate domestic production and lead to a drop in price. Democrats argued that the tariff would only make things worse, and conservatives were unhappy with the added tax. Ford and Congress finally reached a deal in December, 1975. Ford accepted a reduction in domestic oil prices in return for authority to end price controls over a forty-month period. He signed the bill fearing that Congress would override his veto, making him appear weak as the election neared. Democrats won in the short term and conservatives remained unhappy with Ford. Luckily, inflation and unemployment slowed in 1976.
Ford kept Henry Kissinger as National Security Advisor and continued the process of détente. He made progress with the Soviet Union in the Helsinki and Vladivostok Accords. Unfortunately, additional treaties fell through. Conservatives were again critical of Ford because they believed he was too weak on Communists. Despite the Paris Peace Agreement, North and South Vietnam resumed their conflict by the end of 1973. Congress was too busy with Watergate to care. They did grant the South $700 million in aid in 1974, but another Communist assault in 1975 left the South on the brink of defeat. This time, Congress only offered humanitarian aid, not military. Communist forces captured the Southern capital of Saigon in April. Around the same time, the US-friendly governments in Cambodia and Laos also fell. Ford subsequently ordered the evacuation of all US personnel from Southeast Asia.
The Watergate Scandal and the disastrous end to the Vietnam War left the American public with immense distrust of government institutions. To make matters worse, Stagflation and the oil crisis threatened the very notion of American exceptionalism. Voters in 1976 gravitated towards candidates far from the establishment that let them down.
Like 1972, Democrats had a wide field of candidates to choose from. Four candidates stood out: Washington Senator Henry Jackson, Arizona Representative Mo Udall, California Governor Jerry Brown, and segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace (back from being paralyzed in an assassination attempt four years prior). The candidate who captured the momentum, however, was one-term Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. After serving in the Navy, Carter ran his family’s peanut farm. He was very religious, having worked as a missionary and Sunday-school teacher. Time called him the “most unabashed moralist” to seek the presidency since William Jennings Bryan. In the most recent midterm elections, a Democratic landslide, he served as campaign chairman of the DNC, which gave him access to campaign networks across the nation. Carter entered the race in December, 1974, and spent almost two years traveling the country. He was completely unknown to most voters, but used his outsider status to distance himself from the establishment. He promised to never lie to the American people and to eliminate secrecy in government. On policy specifics, he stayed vaguely centrist.
Following the strategy of George McGovern, Carter used the newfound importance of state primaries to his advantage. He did surprisingly well in the Iowa Caucuses and led the field in New Hampshire, proving that a Southern progressive could win in the North. Carter’s plan to build momentum from the first few states has since become the de facto strategy of primary campaigns since. Carter followed it with a Southern victory by beating George Wallace in Florida. The Democratic establishment responded with an “Anybody But Carter” movement, but it was too late. Carter won more than half of the contests he entered. At a time when most candidates only entered select state contests, Carter campaigned all across the country to build up a delegate lead. He gradually moved to the top spot in polls. After he won ohio, party leaders finally acknowledged that he would be the nominee. The Democratic convention was peaceful, a nice break from the controversial gatherings of 1968 and 1972. Carter was the first major party nominee from the Deep South since the Civil War (not counting Woodrow Wilson, born in the South, but entered politics in New Jersey). Carter balanced his ticket with running mate Walter Mondale, an “insider” senator from Minnesota.
Unlike most incumbent presidents, Gerald Ford did not have an easy path to the nomination. He faced a primary challenge from former California Governor Ronald Reagan. As the new favorite of the party’s conservative faction, and free of ties to the scandalous Nixon Administration, Reagan represented the Republicans’ version of the “outsider” candidate. He first gained fame as a radio, television, and movie star. Originally a New Deal Democrat, Reagan was tough on Communists as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He rose to political prominence after a rousing speech for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. He was known for his charm and knack for public speaking. Reagan capitalized on the alienation conservatives felt from Ford’s economic policy, détente, and his pick of Rockefeller as vice president. Like Carter, the New Hampshire primary proved essential for Ford. His narrow victory kept him in the race. He continued to do well, but Reagan had the delegate lead. A decisive victory for Ford in his home state of Michigan brought the two candidates neck-and-neck headed into the convention. Reagan misstepped, however, by choosing liberal Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate to appeal to Eastern delegates. The choice disappointed conservatives, particularly in Mississippi, who still had delegates up for grabs. President Ford narrowly won the nomination on the first ballot. For running mate, Ford chose to replace retiring Nelson Rockefeller with conservative Kansas Senator Bob Dole.
Ford the Wolverine
President Ford’s frequent mishaps, like falling down the steps of Air Force One, made him an easy target for jokes. In fact, he was the first president to be parodied by Saturday Night Live. Oddly enough, he was one of America’s most athletic presidents! In college, Ford played center for the University of Michigan football team. He played on the national championship teams of 1932 and 1933. As a senior in 1934, he earned team MVP. During that last season, the Wolverines faced controversy when Georgia Tech, an upcoming opponent, demanded that they not play Willis Ward, Michigan’s second-ever African American player. Ford and Ward were close friends, having been roommates when traveling for games. According to Ford, he threatened to quit the team if Ward was not allowed to play. He claimed that he consulted Ward, who said he should play anyways (though, it should be noted, Ward later did not recall this conversation). In recent years, the Wolverines’ jerseys featured a reference to this friendship, using a number 4 matching the style used in the 1930s. In the 1934 team photo, the notch on Ford’s 4 points to Ward.
President Ford started behind in the polls. He implemented a “Rose Garden Strategy” by staying close to the White House to appear presidential. He mostly relied on TV advertisements to campaign. Ford was eager to debate. He was convinced that his experience as president, especially on foreign policy, would assure his victory and raise his poll numbers. After the first debate, he seemed on-track. He appeared calm and self-assured, while Carter was nervous and defensive. Ford’s performance cut Carter’s polling lead from 18% to 8%. The second debate did not go as well. After a strong start, Ford stumbled on an answer about Eastern Europe. He confusingly claimed, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Of course, the USSR had influence over all of the countries in that region, most as a result of military threat. Ford’s answer was simply false, and made him seem dangerously out-of-touch with reality. Even his supporters were appalled. The campaign issued a clarifying statement reading, “We are going to make certain to the best of our ability that any allegation of domination is not a fact.” This still did not relieve the public. It seemed like Ford didn’t understand why he was wrong. The campaign was forced to release a second statement acknowledging that there were already Soviet military forces in Eastern Europe. Ford never fully recovered.
Carter continued to campaign vigorously around the country. He called Ford “an appointed president” and did his best to link him to Nixon. But Carter suffered from a gaffe of his own. In order to distance himself from the image of a self-righteous religious fundamentalist, he agreed to an interview with Playboy magazine. The interview turned to sex and adultery. Carter was quoted as saying, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Carter’s odd statement quickly became headlines. Like Ford, he was an easy target for comedians. In the same interview, Carter compared former Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson to Nixon in regards to dishonesty. He had to backtrack that statement, but it forever damaged his relationship with the Johnsons.
Mishaps and gaffes continued to dominate the news throughout this election cycle. Ford had to cover for his Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman after he made anti-Israeli comments, and his Secretary of Agriculture following a racist joke that leaked to the press. Carter faced controversy when his hometown church turned away a black clergyman. Carter said that he was sad about the decision, but that the best response was to stay in the church and try to change it from the inside. Ford’s campaign reached out to black ministers for comment, but community leaders like the King family stayed behind Carter. Referencing the recent series of gaffes, late-night host Johnny Carson joked, “I have a late score from the newsroom. Jimmy Carter is ahead of Gerald Ford, two blunders to one.”
Ford closed the polling gap as election day neared. Gallup called it “the greatest comeback in the history of public-opinion polling.” According to Ford’s press secretary, “It’s really come down to the character of the two men. There’s no really big issue moving people to vote one way or another. It’s which man the voters feel more comfortable with.”
Likely due to distrust in government, and perceived lack of seriousness of the candidates, 1976 saw the lowest voter turnout since WWII. Unlike most recent Democrats, Carter was able to dominate the South. Ford performed best in the West. One faithless elector in Washington state voted for Ronald Reagan.
Jimmy Carter won! He became America’s 39th president. The electoral result of 297-240 was the closest margin since 1916. Carter won 50% of the popular vote, to Ford’s 48%. Democrats also swept Congress. They had a two-thirds majority in the House, and a 62-38 lead in the Senate. One interesting fact about this election: All four candidates of the two major party tickets at some point lost a presidential election.
What Did It Say About America?
America wanted an outsider! Ford had an established record as a politician. Carter was totally unknown before his campaign. Voters preferred the fresh face. That said, Carter won by relying on the old coalitions of the New Deal. African Americans, immigrants, union members, and Southerners carried him to victory. Of course, Democrats needed to run an actual Southerner in order to pull them back into the tent.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yes! Thanks to Watergate (and the Democratic-controlled Congress), Ford never really stood a chance to be a great president, but he also had his own share of self-inflicted wounds. The Nixon pardon is totally unforgivable. Carter (the oldest president still alive!) seems like a really great guy, though I know his term won’t be much smoother than Ford’s.