The American political scene was high-strung in the 1976 presidential campaign as the country attempted to recover from Watergate and other events.
The political climate opened up the door for a little-known Georgia governor to challenge the incumbent president in a hard-fought and roller-coaster campaign.
“People wanted change. They were tired of things as they had been,” said Scott Burnett, the director of the Presidential Speakers Bureau during the Carter administration. “They had been through a very troubling time, just as many Americans felt like we’ve just been through.”
Carter aides spoke to dozens of people Tuesday evening at the Dole Institute of Politics during a panel about the 1976 campaign when Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent President Gerald Ford, whose vice presidential running mate was Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.
Jody Powell, Carter’s press secretary, said the governor from the South was able to identify with voters in several states, especially as the country tried to recover from an ugly Vietnam era. Carter even said in New Hampshire that he would not criticize Ford for granting Nixon a pardon.
“I think what people wanted was to move past that, and they wanted somebody who was not a part of all that,” Powell said.
Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s eventual chief of staff, had hatched a strategy that was based on hard work and appealing to a broad swath of voting coalitions, said Timothy Kraft, the field manager for Carter’s presidential campaigns.
Carter also said he was going to run in every primary and caucus.
“That struck a chord with a lot of people, I think, plus his obvious intelligence and dedication to the issues that a lot of us hoped the Democratic party could promulgate,” Kraft said.
Carter was able to use early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire to his advantage to secure the nomination, while Ford had to fight a tough challenge from Ronald Reagan on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Mo.
But Ford’s campaign mounted a major comeback — aided by some Carter campaign gaffes — until Ford made a misstep about the Soviet Union weeks before the election. In a debate with Carter, Ford declared that Eastern Europe was not under the domination of the Soviet Union.
Despite some political victories in office and his popularity since leaving office, Carter failed to win re-election in 1980, when Reagan defeated him. Carter’s presidency included rough inflation numbers, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran hostage situation.
In reflection, Carter’s aides also said in the 1976 campaign Democrats were able to bring in a wide geographic coalition, including in the South, which has been a struggle for them on the electoral map since.
“I think maybe there’s another chance at that, but it won’t be easy,” Powell said.