Jimmy Carter Wins the 1976 Presidential Election

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This is Rich Kleinfeldt. And this is Richard Rael with THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.

Today, we tell about the presidential election of 1976.

When Vice President Gerald Ford became president in 1974, he took office during a crisis. For the first time in American history, a president -- Richard Nixon -- had resigned.

He resigned as a result of the case known as Watergate. It involved the cover-up of illegal activities. Officials in Richard Nixon's administration had lied about Watergate. They also had misled the public about the war in Vietnam.

After Vietnam and Watergate, many Americans no longer believed their public officials. At this difficult time, Gerald Ford dealt with the public calmly. In one speech, for example, he said, "The state of the Union is not good."

One political observer said President Ford brought respect back to the government. Yet just a little more than two years after Ford became president, American voters rejected him. In the presidential election of 1976, they chose the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, instead. Why?

One reason was that Ford had pardoned Nixon. He announced a presidential pardon for any crimes for which Nixon might have been responsible. This made many people angry. Another reason was that Ford refused to give federal money to New York and other cities with special needs. Many voters felt this showed that he was not concerned about poor people and their problems.

Others believe that unemployment and inflation defeated Gerald Ford. He was not able to deal effectively with these problems during his short presidency.

For these reasons, there was competition for the Republican Party nomination in 1976. Ford's chief opponent was Ronald Reagan, governor of California.

The Democratic Party thought that voter anger about Watergate would help the Democratic candidate become president. Eleven Democrats campaigned for the nomination. Two well-known politicians did not campaign. But they said they would serve if no other candidate won the party's support. They were former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Edward Kennedy.

One of the lesser-known candidates was the former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. Political experts gave him little chance of winning the nomination, because most Democrats did not know him. Whenever his supporters talked about him, others always seemed to say, "Jimmy, who?"

Carter used this problem to help win more recognition. Whenever he met voters, he would say, "Hello! I am Jimmy Carter, and I am running for president."

People liked Jimmy Carter. Before becoming governor of Georgia, he had been a nuclear engineer and a peanut farmer. Again and again, he told people that he was not part of the established political power system in Washington. He also had strong religious beliefs. This appealed to a lot of Americans.

Many voters supported Carter in the local Democratic primary elections before the party's nominating convention. His victory in the Florida primary was especially important. He defeated another southern politician, Governor George Wallace of Alabama.

Carter represented what was called the "New South" in the United States. He made it clear that he opposed ideas of the "Old South". These included racial separation and mistreatment of black Americans.

George Wallace spoke of creating a better life for both blacks and whites. Yet he had strongly defended racial separation for most of his political life. Many people remembered pictures of Governor Wallace at the University of Alabama in 1963. The pictures showed him blocking the door to prevent two young blacks from attending the school.

The Republican primaries had mixed results for President Ford. In New Hampshire, he won only fifty-one percent of the vote. Ronald Reagan won forty-nine percent. It was a poor showing for a president in office. But in Massachusetts he got two votes for every one vote that Reagan got.

Reporters said Ford and Reagan debated about issues that were not very important or interesting. The campaign did show, however, that Reagan was more conservative than Ford.

For example, Reagan talked strongly about United States control of the Panama Canal. "We built it," he said. "We paid for it. And we are going to keep it." In his campaign speeches, Ford denounced extremism. It was clear he was speaking about Reagan.

Ford and Reagan won almost the same amount of support in the Republican primaries. Yet many convention delegates remained undecided. This was a dangerous situation for the Republican Party. Party leaders did not want a fight over undecided votes at the nominating convention. Such disunity could damage the chances of the party's candidate against the Democratic candidate in the general election.

The situation was similar in the Democratic Party. As support for Jimmy Carter increased, Democrats who did not like him began to say, "Anybody but Carter." But Carter was not to be stopped. He kept repeating that he did not have ties to groups that tried to influence government policies. He would be different, he said. And that sounded like what the people wanted.

Carter won the Democratic primaries in Georgia, Alabama, and Indiana. The other candidates fell hopelessly behind.

At the party convention, he was nominated on the first vote. In his acceptance speech, he repeated the line he had made famous: "I am Jimmy Carter. And I am running for president." Carter said there was a fear that America's best years were over. He said the nation's best was still to come.

The Democratic convention chose Walter Mondale, a senator from Minnesota, to be the party's vice presidential candidate.

A month before the Republican Party convention, Ronald Reagan made a costly political mistake. He said that -- if he won the nomination -- he would want Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania to be the vice presidential candidate.

Conservatives were angry, because Schweiker was a liberal Republican. Some political observers say this is why Reagan lost the nomination to President Ford. Ford won by one hundred-seventeen votes.

Many of the delegates then wanted Reagan to be the party's vice presidential candidate. But Reagan was not interested. Instead, the nomination went to Senator Robert Dole of Kansas.

The general campaign started in September 1976. In one speech, President Ford said, "The question in this campaign is not who has the better vision of America. The question is who will act to make the vision a reality."

Political experts said that what happened during the next two months was uninteresting. One newspaper said the campaign left the voters feeling sleepy.

Ford and Carter agreed to debate each other on television. Nobody had done that since Nineteen-Sixty, when Richard Nixon and John Kennedy held several television debates.

Many people thought Ford did a little better than Carter in the first debate. In the second debate, however, President Ford made a mistake. He said the Soviet Union did not control eastern Europe -- and never would in a Ford administration. For some voters, the statement added to their belief that President Ford was not very intelligent.

The third debate did not have a clear winner. Public opinion studies showed that many voters were still undecided.

The race for the presidency was very close. Jimmy Carter won with fifty-one percent of the popular vote. President Ford won forty-eight percent.

Two years before, most Americans had not known Jimmy Carter's name. Now, many of those same people had elected him the thirty-ninth president of the United States.

This program of THE MAKING OF A NATION was written by Jeri Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Richard Rael. And this is Rich Kleinfeldt. Join us again next week for another VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.