Carter Is Elected President Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The weakening of political party lines in the era following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal resulted in a mixed mandate from a divided electorate and placed Jimmy Carter in the White House.

Summary of Event

Jimmy Carter took the U.S. presidency from Gerald R. Ford by a popular vote margin of only 2 percent—the same figure that one year earlier had represented the minuscule proportion of Democrats who preferred the former Georgia governor as their party’s presidential nominee. It was the first time an incumbent president had been defeated in forty-four years. Carter had come a long way, indeed, although he had just barely succeeded in winning office. Not only did Carter receive a bare majority of the popular vote and carry a minority of the states, but he also had a margin of only fifty-six electoral votes. His was the narrowest victory in a U.S. presidential election since Woodrow Wilson defeated Charles Evans Hughes by twenty-three electoral votes in 1916. Presidency, U.S.;Jimmy Carter[Carter] Presidential elections, U.S.;1976 Elections;U.S. [kw]Carter Is Elected President (Nov. 2, 1976) [kw]Elected President, Carter Is (Nov. 2, 1976) [kw]President, Carter Is Elected (Nov. 2, 1976) Presidency, U.S.;Jimmy Carter[Carter] Presidential elections, U.S.;1976 Elections;U.S. [g]North America;Nov. 2, 1976: Carter Is Elected President[02620] [g]United States;Nov. 2, 1976: Carter Is Elected President[02620] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 2, 1976: Carter Is Elected President[02620] Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;presidential elections Dole, Bob Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;presidential elections McCarthy, Eugene Mondale, Walter Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;presidential elections

The very geography of the electoral vote seemed to reflect this narrow victory by presenting a symmetrical picture of a nation split roughly down the middle, with a solid South opposing a granite West. The closeness of the national vote, however, was really a closeness found mostly within, rather than between, the states. Relatively slight shifts of the popular vote in a few states easily could have altered the election results substantially. Independent candidate Eugene McCarthy’s vote count in Iowa, Maine, Oklahoma, and Oregon was greater than Ford’s plurality over Carter. Third-party presidential candidates (U.S.)[Third party presidential candidates] It is likely that most supporters of McCarthy, a maverick liberal best known for his earlier stand against the Vietnam War, would have gone to Carter. Polls consistently showed that the great majority of McCarthy’s support came from Democrats, so the Georgian very likely would have carried at least Oregon and Maine if McCarthy had not run there, and possibly Iowa and Oklahoma also.

Jimmy Carter (left) and Gerald R. Ford take part in a presidential debate in 1976.

(NARA)

The fifty-one electoral votes of Texas and Ohio might have been denied the Carter-Mondale ticket if Ford’s running mate had been Ronald Reagan instead of Bob Dole. There is little doubt that as the Republican vice presidential candidate, Dole was more of a liability than an asset to Ford’s campaign. A poll taken in late October, 1976, found, for example, that while half the voters would choose Walter Mondale over Dole for vice president, only a third would choose Dole. Dole’s hard-driving partisanship tended to subvert the image of presidential assuredness that Ford was trying to project. Most injurious was a statement from Dole that seemed to attack the two world wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War as “Democratic wars.” Mondale, on the other hand, added stability and the sense of being a known, Washington-tested element to Carter’s essentially moral rather than political appeal.

About two weeks before the Republican National Convention, Ford’s campaign strategists gave him a 120-page memorandum that implicitly rejected Dole for the number two spot because of his televised personal attack on Carter as being “southern-fried McGovern.” In the end, however, Dole was picked and Reagan was not. According to some accounts, Reagan was not asked to join the ticket because his campaign manager in effect told Ford’s chief of staff that Reagan would meet with the president only if assurances were made that Reagan would not be asked. Others, however, have asserted that Reagan said he would have run with Ford had he been asked. According to these sources, after Reagan lost the party’s nomination for president, one of his supporters informed several of Ford’s top staff that Reagan was available as a running mate, and so he half expected to be offered the vice presidency when he met with Ford. Still, Reagan’s campaign manager maintained that he explained to Ford’s staff before the nomination that Reagan should not be offered the vice presidency, because he did not want to embarrass the president by an outright refusal.

An additional piece of evidence is Reagan’s handwritten note to his own California delegation: “There is no circumstance whatsoever under which I would accept the nomination for Vice-President. That is absolutely final.” Because, Reagan said, the Ford people on the convention floor were promising the uncommitted delegates that Reagan would be on the ticket if Ford won, the Californians had to be assured that this was not true. Nevertheless, Reagan later said that even though he did not want the job, if Ford had twisted his arm by claiming an obligation to party and country, “it would have been an impossibility to say no.” In any event, if Reagan had run on the Republican ticket, and Texas and Ohio had gone Republican, and no state for Ford had defected, the only difference in the final outcome would have been an even closer race—with Carter winning by a hairline electoral vote margin of five.

It is doubtful, however, that Ohio would have switched. As observers have noted, the Democratic victory there can be attributed to the labor union campaign conducted in that state. Nationwide, Carter held a nearly 25 percent lead over his opponent among voters from union households. This union support (which McGovern had lacked in 1972) reflected the fact that trivial matters—such as the campaign’s semantic slips involving “ethnic purity”—had little lasting impact. Rather, for the first time in a generation, the electorate was sharply divided along partisan lines that ran parallel to the New Deal alignment. Four of every five Democrats voted for Carter, and almost nine of every ten Republicans for Ford. Because there were about twice as many Democrats as Republicans among the roughly two-thirds of the electorate identifying with a party, the reappearance of loyal party voting was critical to Carter’s close victory.

After President Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. resigned his office in disgrace in 1974 and the Democrats swept the 1974 congressional election, it seemed likely that the next president would be a Democrat. That an unknown former governor from the South would come out of the pack and surpass many other prominent Democrats to gain his party’s nomination was a tremendous surprise, but Carter’s forthrightness and apparent independence from entrenched interests made the Democrats’ chances even stronger. Carter’s unquestioned personal integrity and his enthusiasm as a campaigner quickly endeared him to the American people. Ford, however, campaigned with surprising strength, although he had been bruised by his internecine party struggle with Reagan and was not particularly helped by having Dole as his running mate.

Ford managed to emerge from the tarnished aura that Nixon and the Watergate Watergate scandal (1973) scandal had given his party. The fact that Ford had been the president for more than two years and had presided over the nation’s affairs with mild competence enabled him to capitalize on the inexperience of his opponent. Earlier in the campaign, Carter had gained popularity in part because he seemed to be a humble, honest peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. By late October, Ford had managed to turn this equation around so that he seemed the veteran leader in contrast to Carter’s inexperience and naïveté.

Carter’s victory was attributable to several factors. The fact that he was potentially the first son of the Deep South to be elected president since Reconstruction caused a groundswell of support for him in southern states that otherwise were growing more conservative and would, in fifteen years’ time, be solidly Republican. Similarly, Carter’s profession of born-again Christianity made him popular among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who otherwise would have gone into his opponent’s column. Several major ethnic groups—Jews, Latinos, and African Americans—voted overwhelmingly for Carter, renewing their traditional Democratic loyalties. Carter gained the crucial support of so-called ethnic Catholics in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. These voters, who had become Nixon Democrats in the wake of the excesses of the 1960’s counterculture, were now ready to return to the Democratic fold.

Significance

Carter’s election was not a full renewal of the New Deal Democratic coalition. The voters were willing to prefer him in 1976, but that did not guarantee continuing enthusiasm either for Carter personally or for his party. What the 1976 election signified more than anything else was that traditional party loyalties were beginning to weaken on both sides. It was a mixed verdict that gave a mixed assessment of where the United States was going in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era. The fact that Carter, rather than a more traditional Democrat, had won in what seemed an obviously Democratic election year meant that the sway of party affiliation was weakening, to be replaced by an emphasis on ideology and on the candidate’s image in the media. Presidency, U.S.;Jimmy Carter[Carter] Presidential elections, U.S.;1976 Elections;U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. 2d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Helps to place the 1976 campaign within the context of presidential campaigns throughout U.S. history. Chapter on the Carter campaign is titled “The Triumph of an Outsider.” Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bourne, Peter G. Jimmy Carter. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997. Comprehensive biography includes discussion of the 1976 campaign. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macdougall, Malcolm. We Almost Made It. New York: Crown, 1977. Provides a view of the Ford campaign from an insider’s perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reeves, Richard. Convention. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977. Presents a portrait of the Democratic Party that nominated Carter in 1976.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schram, Martin. Running for President: The Carter Campaign. New York: Stein & Day, 1977. Provides a journalistic history of the campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Witcover, Jules. Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency, 1972-1976. New York: Viking Press, 1978. One of the most authoritative histories of the 1976 campaign available. An indispensable resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wooten, James. Dasher: The Roots and Rising of Jimmy Carter. New York: Summit Books, 1978. Excellent biography covers Carter’s life from youth to the presidency.

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