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Election of 1976: A Reaction to Watergate

The election of 1976 was held in the aftermath of the Watergate Scandal that led to the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, the winner of the 1972 presidential election. He had been succeeded by Gerald Ford of Michigan, who had assumed the office of vice-president after the forced resignation of Spiro Agnew. While Gerald Ford was not personally implicated in Watergate, apart from his pardon of Nixon, the Republican Party was still tainted in the eyes of many. Not having won the presidential nomination in his own right, Ford did not have the expectation of an automatic nomination in 1976. He in fact faced a strong challenge from Ronald Reagan, former governor of California and now the face of conservatism in the Republican Party. Both candidates had strong support but neither had enough committed delegates at the time of the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, Missouri, in late August. Ronald Reagan's campaign decided that it might make him more acceptable to Republican moderates if he chose some from that wing as his running mate, so he broke tradition and announced early that he would pick Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania. Instead, the choice of Schweiker alienated some of his conservative backers while enticing few moderates to back him. Jesse Helms of Georgia even began an effort to draft the conservative senator James L. Buckley of New York. The final result was a victory for Gerald Ford. Ronald Reagan demonstrated that he was the Republican Party's most eloquent speaker when his speech at the close of the convention outshone Ford's speech accepting the nomination. For vice-president, Ford chose Senator Robert Dole of Kansas. Nelson Rockefeller had indicated much earlier that he did not want to be a vice-presidential candidate, perhaps because he realized that he was too liberal to get the nomination anyway. Many Democrats had considered running for the 1976 nomination, with no obvious national leader and a damaged Republican Party to run against. However, by the time the 1976 Democratic national convention met in New York City in mid-July, Jimmy Carter clearly had enough delegates to win on the first ballot. He chose Walter Mondale, long associated with his fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey, to be his vice-presidential pick. The keynote address at the Democratic National Convention was delivered by Barbara Jordan, a black woman. Her opening words reflected the historic nature of this fact:

It was one hundred and forty-four years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select a Presidential candidate. Since that time, Democrats have continued to convene once every four years and draft a party platform and nominate a Presidential candidate. And our meeting this week is a continuation of that tradition. But there is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special? I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.
For his general election campaign in 1976, Jimmy Carter followed the same strategy that had been successful in the Democratic primaries, which was to paint himself as a political "outsider," not contaminated with the shenanigans of Washington DC politics. Gerald Ford, in contrast, used the exposure provided by the presidency to his advantage, appearing often at large events relating to the American bicentennial. He put forward an image of experience and competence, in contrast to Carter's limited time on the national stage. The campaign had bumps for both candidates. Carter's initially huge lead of 33 points dwindled as the weeks passed. He further hurt himself with an interview that appeared in Playboy Magazine. During the Playboy interview, Carter conceded that at times he had lusted "in his heart." This confession diminished Carter's standing with some evangelical Christians. On the other side, Gerald Ford hurt his credibility when he stated that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union. This sort of statement was in keeping with the principles of Detente, which has superseded the harsh rhetoric of the Cold War, but it reminded many, including many conservative Republicans, what they didn't like about Detente. On election day, November 2, 1976, the American people gave Jimmy Carter just enough support to win. By carrying the Deep South and winning some key Northern states, Carter managed to win with 297 electoral votes to 240 for Gerald Ford. Although he had a margin of a million and a half in the popular vote, changes of fairly small numbers in the key states of Wisconsin and Ohio, which Carter won, could have resulted in a victory for Gerald Ford. With Jimmy Carter's election, the Deep South sent someone to the White House for the first time since Zachary Taylor was victorious in 1848.
Election of 1976
Party Electoral
Jimmy Carter (GA)
Walter F. Mondale (MN)
Democratic 297 40,830,763
Gerald F. Ford (MI)
Bob Dole (KS)
Republican 240* 39,147,793
*One presidential electoral vote went to Republican Ronald W. Reagan.