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Election 1976 - Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

"If it weren't for the country looking for something in '76, Carter could never have gotten elected. He would never have been allowed out of the box. No one would have paid attention to him."

Patrick Caddell, Carter campaign pollster

Source: People and Events: The Election of 1976,

President Gerald R. Ford's attempt to gain election to a full term in 1976 was clouded by his pardon of Richard Nixon, the public reaction to the Watergate scandal and the failures of the war in Viet Nam. See Initiation of Campaign Planning for the 1976 Campaign, Briefing Paper, Richard Cheney Files, Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum. The President also had to confront concerns that he was not smart enough to handle the demands of the presidency, and the unfair perception, promoted by comedians as a result of the President's occasional missteps, that he was a buffoon. While an incumbent, the President also had to confront the strong challenge to his nomination from the right wing of his party launched by former California Governor Ronald Reagan. See Memo dated June 11, 1976 from Stefand Halper, Staff Assistant in the White House Press Secretary's Office to David Gergen, Special Counsel to the President for Communications, on George Will's observations on President Ford's Campaign Strategy, Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum. Reagan's ease in appearing and speaking before cameras contrasted with the President's uncomfortable style.

Letter dated May 7, 1976, from Senator Barry Goldwater to President Ford advising on campaign style and confronting challenge from Ronald Reagan

"...You are the President. Do not stoop to arguing with another candidate. Your speeches are a little bit too long. Get a good speech that is short and use it and use it and use it...."

Source: Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum

In the New Hampshire primary, the President won a narrow victory, but Reagan's campaign later was revived by a primary win in North Carolina. When the Republican National Convention convened in Kansas City in August, the nomination remained in doubt as both sides attempted to persuade uncommitted delegates to shift to their respective candidates. After the roll call of delegates on the first ballot, however, President Ford secured the nomination over Governor Reagan by less than a 100 votes, one of the narrowest Convention tallies in history.

Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan President Ford and Governor Reagan demonstrate unity at Republican National Convention following Ford's nomination in August 1976.
Image Source: Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum

The campaign for the Democratic nomination of of Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, largely unknown outside his home state, was based on a strategic plan outlined by his political advisers, who saw an opportunity for a southern moderate like Carter to capture both the nomination and the November election. Carter also effectively played on the public disgust at the scandals and arrogance disclosed during the Republican Administration, making the repeated pledge during his campaign: "I will never lie to the American people". When Carter won the Florida primary over Alabama Governor George Wallace, he solidified his southern political base and overcame late challenges from more liberal Democrats like California's Jerry Brown.

In the general election, President Ford trailed badly in the early polls. But by the time of the nationally televised debates on October 6, Carter's lead had nearly evaporated. In the debate focused on foreign policy, however, Ford shocked many when he stated that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." See The Second 1976 Presidential Debate, "People couldn't see how a president would say that," Carter's running mate, Walter Mondale, later recalled, allowing Carter to "pound away" at Ford for a week. "It stopped our slide. We started picking up a little bit, because people started having doubts about President Ford." See People and Events: The Election of 1976, The November election was so close that it was not until 3:30 am that the Carter victory was assured. Carter received 50% of the popular vote to Ford's 48%, but his advantage in the Electoral College was a thin 297 to 241, the smallest winning total since Woodrow Wilson's in 1916.

Following his election, Carter also relied heavily on his political advisers and and polling consultants, perhaps conducting the first presidency designed on the concept of "the permanent campaign", the title of a book profiling political consultants later published by speechwriter and consultant Sidney Blumenthal. In a 51-page memo provided the President shortly after the election, pollster Patrick Caddell advised, "In devising a strategy for the Administration, it is important to recognize we cannot successfully separate politics and government. . . . Essentially it is my thesis that governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign." The memo included a poll-derived analysis of voter alienation from national political life, and suggested "cutting back on imperial frills and perks," using symbolic actions such as"fireside chats" during the preinaugural period and "town meetings" during the early months of the presidency. Caddell argued that the administration needed to "buy time quickly," because "given their mood today, the American people may turn on us before we ever get off the mark." See Karlyn Bowman, Polling to Campaign and to Govern, in Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, eds. 2000. The Permanent Campaign and Its Future, Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, Brigham Young University Library. Carter accepted much of Caddell's advice, such as by departing from tradition during his Inaugural to leave his limousine to walk the parade route and largely curtail other trappings of the presidency such as the playing of "Hail to the Chief" at presidential appearances. President Carter was also the first president to have a professional advertising executive, Gerald Rafshoon, join the White House staff.

...we were thinking before I came here, that there was a need to have somebody worry about the long-range communications problems, who wasn't mired in the day-to-day reaction problems that the Press Secretary is--Somebody that could help formulate themes, formulate speeches, expand the interview process that--where the President would see more people, and more or less work on ways of communicating not only on what President Carter is, but what he stands for, what our programs are and try to sell our programs, not only to the public but to the congress.....

Interview with Gerald Rafshoon, Assistant to President Carter for Communications, September 12, 1979, prior to his departure from the White House staff to return to his media and public relations firm

The Carter Administration's most prominent accomplishment was the President's personal diplomacy that led to the signing of the "Camp David Accords" in September 1998. After twelve days of secret negotiations at Camp David, the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations were concluded with the signing at the White House of two agreements. The first set a three-month schedule for the return to Egypt of lands in the Sinai desert previously seized by Israel, and provided for Egyptian recognition of Israel. The second established a longer-term framework for the conducting of negotiations intended to lead to the formation of an autonomous Palestinian regime in the West Bank and Gaza.

President Carter's folksy leadership style and avoidance of the trappings of office, which were assets during his first run for the presidency in the aftermath of Watergate and in his first months in the White House, increasingly became liabilities as his Administration attempted to deal with the Arab oil embargo, economic recession and, especially, the seizure on November 4, 1979 of the U.S Embassy in Tehran and the holding of 52 of its personnel as hostages. The extraordinary media attention focused on the hostage crisis, and the President's decision to curtail his appearances at outside events during the crisis, became an increasingly heavy political burden as the Administration was unable to make progress in either its diplomatic initiatives or through its disastrous hostage rescue attempt. See Case Study Abstract, Siege Mentality: ABC, the White House and the Iran Hostage Crisis, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Carter's leadership also was questioned when he accepted pollster Caddell's findings that there was an underlying malaise in the country that he identified in his so-called "Crisis of Confidence" speech televised on July 15, 1979. Intending to address new measures to confront the energy crisis precipitated by the Arab oil embargo, the President also used the time to admonish his audience, "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns." When the President then retreated to Camp David, later convening a rapidly-organized summit of high-level public and private leaders to discuss policy options, public confidence in his leadership ability was further undermined.

Carter's political weakness ultimately led to a challenge to his re-nomination in 1980 from Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who initially had announced that he would not enter the primaries against the incumbent president. Kennedy's campaign, however, never recovered from his televised interview on "Sixty Minutes" with Roger Mudd in which he was unable to articulate a cogent response to Mudd's simple question of "why did he want to be president?" Despite Senator Kennedy's failure, the Democratic split and the lack of unity in support of Carter's re-election led to the successful challenge of Ronald Reagan in the November election.


Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum

Jimmy Carter Library & Museum

People & Events: James Earl ("Jimmy") Carter Jr. (1924-) >>

Jimmy Carter >>

Camp David Accords >> Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Educational Tools

Lesson Plan: Carter as President and Ex-President

Returning the Panama Canal >> The Shelby Star, Newspapers in Education