Why did James Earl Carter win the 1976 presidential election?

In 1972, the Democratic candidate suffered one of the worst defeats in political history. Richard Nixon’s attempt to solidify a new, post-New Deal republican coalition, which had been evident both in his 1968 ‘Southern Strategy’ and in his 1960 campaign, seemed to have borne fruit. Indeed, if one dates from 1968, a coalition based broadly on the Plains States plus the Old South, which constituted a republican base that could command a basic 106 electoral votes and 66 more if the rest of the South was counted, seems to have been established and fairly solid in 5 out of the subsequent 7 presidential elections. This made life tremendously easy for GOP candidates who could unite their base, since the addition of Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Ohio, and either a great lakes state or two western states would make them president. It follows that Jimmy Carter’s narrow victory in 1976, in defiance of this logic, was either demonstrative of the faded but not gone power of the Democracy in the South and rustbelt, illustrative of a Republican failure, or symptomatic of a new and, it has to be said, somewhat inscrutable Democratic approach.

It is not the case that Republicans in general were doomed in 1976 either. Congressional elections saw the successful return of 143 representatives, with only one net gain by the Democrats from Republicans, Republican gains in the Senate, and a rising libertarian vote. In the event, Gerald Ford lost by 3000 votes in Hawaii and 6000 votes in Ohio. Watergate had not provided a vast anti-Republican wave, possibly because of a general air of disillusion with establishment parties and candidates in general.

Carter won because he proved able to ‘block’ the Southern strategy. In this, he was able to exploit two central features of his long battle for the nomination. Firstly, Carter had shown himself able to defeat George Wallace, who was again seeking a Democratic nomination, whilst gaining working-class white male support. This was a feat no-one else in the Democratic primaries was able to accomplish, and had the effect of uniting the activists of his party.

Secondly, though he faced a succession of ‘ABC’ (Anyone But Carter) establishment candidates, Carter’s serious opponents were either discredited or were not in the field. John Connally, for instance—a far more qualified Southern Governor with deep political roots—was by 1976 a Republican, and inured in scandal. Reuben Askew had no real passion for the campaign, and Edward Kennedy was still discredited by Chappaquiddick. In any event, the Kennedy lustre had been seriously dimmed by the beginnings of revelations about the public and private conduct of the administration and the Kennedy family in general which, in the subsequent Pike and Church committees, would be fully elaborated. That left a third run by Hubert Humphrey, who for all his optimism was a deeply divisive figure in the Democrat party because of 1968, and an ill-funded and ill thought out campaign by Scoop Jackson, whose militarism was very far from the ‘spirit of 1976’. In retrospect, Carter’s progress against Mo Udall is not really surprising either; a verbally indisciplined Mormon from Utah from perhaps too much of an outsider in the white working class year of ‘Rocky’ and ‘American Graffiti’.  

Carter, in a positive sense, was also a focussed, attractive candidate in 1976. A former nuclear scientist, with a strong grasp of economics and a very clear understanding of the new rules in the Democrat party made his ‘primary strategy’ much more successful than those of Estes Kefauver in the 1950s, or Robert Kennedy in 1968. His campaign had the effect of testing him, exposing him to the media and public so often that there were few revelations other than a self-inflicted and none too damaging Playboy interview in the full campaign. Carter was a businessman, a farmer, a Kennedy lookalike who happened to be a Sunday-school preacher, and a man who clearly had no problems with his outspoken wife. Even his brother appealed to a certain demographic. None of this was ‘crafted’ and it is hard to think of a candidate more suited to unite the ‘hard hats’ Nixon had tried to win over, alongside the New Left coalition of feminists and minorities, and to add it to the Southern males who had voted for Wallace in 1968.

Thus, Carter was a unifying candidate in 1976, and managed to ‘seal the deal’ with his own party in the nomination of the trusted insider who had nothing of the usual reputation attached to that role, Walter Mondale, as a running mate. In addition, Mondale struck at the other part of Nixon’s new coalition, representing as he did a Farm-Labor bloc in the Great Lakes.

Nevertheless, Carter still almost lost, which perhaps speaks to the weakness of the Republican Party that year. Gerald Ford was, famously, an unelected president. There appears to have been at best uncertainty about his initial willingness to run in 1976, and his conduct in office—in, for instance, the ‘Whip Inflation’ campaign, the Mayaguez incident, and the refusal to attempt to stop the Fall of Saigon—had left Ford with a deeply disillusioned party. He was forced into an expensive and highly divisive campaign under new spending and broadcasting rules in 1976 in the primaries, against Ronald Reagan, and was in the event lucky to have been nominated. Once nominated, Ford pursued a ‘Rose Garden’ strategy which did not play to his strengths as an ordinary man, and he laboured under the burden of having been the man who pardoned Richard Nixon for ‘anything he may have done’ as well as his acknowledged crimes.

It is difficult to identify any one error as either determinative or indicative in Ford’s campaign. Nominating the ultimate establishment vice-president in 1974, Nelson Rockefeller, and then dumping him for the highly divisive and somewhat acidulous war hero Bob Dole was probably not the best combination of moves. It certainly allowed the Carter-Mondale ticket to exploit the almost inevitable Dole gaffe on ‘Democrat wars’ which managed to look both nasty and unpatriotic during the vice-presidential debates. Ford was also new to national campaigning, and, despite his long association in the House of Representatives with the CIA, to Foreign policy; this is presumably explanatory of his disastrous formulation during the presidential debates with Carter that Poland and Eastern Europe were not ‘under Soviet domination’. His point was not absurd—Romania and Yugoslavia were not part of a Soviet bloc and Polish authorities were resisting Soviet intervention in their growing civil disputes—but it was neophytic and ill-made.

It is a truism that American presidential elections turn on the economy, but this observation must be properly qualified. Incumbents can lose because of a poor economy, but only if they allow themselves to be blamed for it. In the period after 1966, federal budget deficits increased, and inflation began to grip American society; for this, Lyndon Johnson’s combination of guns and butter, in Vietnam and the Great Society, plus Nixon’s debasement of the dollar could be blamed if the Arab-inspired OPEC price rises of 1973 were not. The economics profession was in turmoil, because of the rise of Friedmanism and the Chicago school (Friedman having started as a Keynesian who developed an augmented Keynesian trade-off model of unemployment and inflation). In response, Ford’s ‘whip inflation’ steadiness, the falls in unemployment and inflation, and the gains in productivity of his years in office were positive points. Ford actually allowed innovative policies which with hindsight allowed the prolongation of US economic leadership, such as the use of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae mortgage insurance as derivative collateral to expand the effective monetary base and pump life into markets after their 1973 collapse. Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson had seen the erosion of US market leadership internationally, but Ford benefited wholly fortuitously from European and Japanese stagflation, which meant a recovery of American positions.

It was not the economy that lost things for Ford; it was that Ford could not, as Clinton did in 1996, or Bush in 2004, articulate why his stewardship and steadiness was more of a reason to vote for him than his opponent’s intellectual or ideological assurance was not. It is not enough to blame a campaign of abuse and fairly vicious personal destruction on the part of comedians and media people, of which Saturday Night Live’s bumbling Chevy Chase was the vanguard for this lack of appeal. The media and comedians latch onto truth and exploit it for a living, and no president should be safe from ridicule. Some, however, manage to co-opt the jokes, as Reagan did, or to rise beyond them, as Clinton did. Ford, at least, was not as humourless or hypersensitive as Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon turned out to be, but he never found a way out of being defined as a decent man who said the wrong thing or who fell down stairs.

Ford—an apparently decent, good and intelligent man-- was hobbled by his party, himself, and his vice-presidential choices, as well as by his predecessor. He faced a strong opponent who had managed to unite the Democrat party. In that regard, it is Ford’s achievement that is most remarkable in 1976. He showed that, despite almost every disadvantage, a republican could now do most things wrong and still come within 9000 votes of the presidency. It was this lesson that Carter, congressional democrats, and the Democratic Party in general, would have done well to learn as they took office in 1977.