CAMPAIGN OVERVIEW More than two years after Richard Nixon's resignation, the only "appointed" president, Gerald Ford, vied for the presidency with Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia. Ford pledged to restore government integrity in the post-Watergate era, but his swift official pardon of Nixon dogged his campaign. Carter, politically unknown outside of Georgia, charged that Republican policies compromised America's international status and debilitated the domestic economy. Both candidates took advantage of media exposure and sometimes committed gaffes. In an interview for Playboy, Carter revealed that he had "lusted in his heart," a quaint confession in the post-sexual revolution era. In the second of three televised national debates, Ford damaged his credibility by stating, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration."
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Despite an era of post-Watergate cynicism, l976 was the nation's bicentennial year, with celebrations all over the country. Nevertheless, the nation was still smarting from gas shortages, double-digit inflation and a failed campaign to "Whip Inflation Now." The previous year, Americans evacuated Saigon, followed by the prompt collapse of the South Vietnam government and the unification of Vietnam under a Communist government. In addition, the country had suffered a blow when Cambodian Communist forces seized an American merchant ship, the Mayaguez. A US rescue cost more lives than were saved.
Republicans stressed Ford's integrity and fiscal conservatism. Taking advantage of the bicentennial fervor, Ford's advisors underscored the incumbent's patriotism. Carter's personal determination and grassroots "peanut brigade" brought him from national anonymity to the Democratic nomination. A self-described populist, Carter emphasized his Washington outsider status, religious values, and Southern roots to prove he could repair lost confidence in the post-Watergate White House. Carter's strategists created a "misery index" as an indictment of the high unemployment and inflation rates during the Ford administration.
Both candidates called for integrity in office, a balanced budget, full employment and American strength and leadership abroad. Ford pledged to "hold to the steady course" by reducing bureaucracy, raising personal tax exemptions, and initiating a permanent tax cut and spending reductions. Ford also argued for local control of education. Carter focused on a human rights agenda, support for social programs, tax reform, strong defense and an open foreign policy. Integral to Carter's platform was his emphasis on personal morality and character.
Ford had come to office as "a Ford not a Lincoln." His presidential campaign promoted a "steady and dependable man" who could "make us proud again" and heal the nation from the taint of scandal. Carter's campaign strategy was "Not Just Peanuts" but offered "A Leader for a Change." Carter himself stressed his personal integrity by promising, "I will never tell a lie. I will never make a misleading statement. I will never betray the confidence any of you have in me."
Carter earned 50% of the popular vote over Ford's 47.9%. Carter took 297 electoral votes to Ford's 240, in one of the slimmest electoral victories. Democrats succeeded in carrying all southern states but one. They also maintained a majority in both houses of Congress.
Electoral College Results
Carter (Democrat) 297
Ford (Republican) 240
Carter was the first candidate from the Deep South to achieve the presidency in over a century. Yet, his victory ushered in one of the most troubled presidencies in modern history. His foreign policy record is mixed. He mediated the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, successfully pushed the Panama Canal Treaty through Congress, and finalized diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic of China. At the same time, OPEC price increases helped spike inflation to even higher rates than during the Ford administration. When Iranian fanatics took 53 American embassy workers hostage, Carter worked feverishly for their release. Negotiations stalled and a failed rescue attempt only worsened America's credibility abroad. His boycott of the l980 Moscow Olympics, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (threatening the security of the Persian Gulf), was controversial. Beleaguered by an inept energy policy, protracted inflation and severe unemployment, Americans suffered a "crisis in confidence." Carter's bid for re-election buckled under the vigorous persona of Ronald Reagan whose cheerful confidence easily eclipsed the memory of failed Democratic policies.