President and Mrs. Ford watched election returns in the White House residence, surrounded by family and friends. Television news reported Governor Carter quickly locking down his Southern base, including the key states of Texas and Pennsylvania.
Then Ford began to close the electoral gap. As midnight neared, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, Maine, Mississippi, Hawaii, and New Mexico were too close to call. Ford needed almost all of them. By the time he went to bed, however, just after 3:00 a.m., the trend was becoming clear. And soon thereafter, the networks called Mississippi for the former Governor of Georgia, its seven electoral votes carrying Jimmy Carter passed the needed 270.
Carter earned 51% of the popular vote, to Ford’s 48%. He won twenty-three states to Ford’s twenty-seven. In key states, the race was decided by about one percent of the vote. It was a close race, leaving many on Ford's team pondering the "what ifs." President Ford and his wife, however, looked ahead. They had done their best, and this time they lost.
Ford sent President-elect Carter a congratulatory telegram early on the morning of November 3. He and his family met with the press soon afterward. His voice robbed of its strength by the campaign's last push, the President asked Mrs. Ford to read his concession remarks. He soon instructed his staff to assist the incoming administration with the transition and continued his presidential duties until noon, on January 20, when, for the eighteenth time, the United States peacefully transferred the presidency from one political party to another.
Guests invited to watch the election results with the Ford family in the White House included the Ford's former housekeeper Clara Powell, NBC sports broadcaster and former baseball star Joe Garagiola, co-chair of the National Democrats for Gerald R. Ford Edith Green, Senator Robert Dole and his wife Elizabeth, Chief of Staff Richard Cheney, Press Secretary Ronald Nessen, White House photographer David Kennerly, and many other staff members and friends. Television sets were tuned in to each major network, though Ford spent most of his time watching NBC. Governor Carter started off strong with a lead of twelve to three. Ford picked up New Jersey in a surprise win, but New York and Texas went for Carter, though former Texas Governor John Connally had promised to deliver the state to Ford. At nearly 3:00 a.m. the election boiled down to four states: Ohio, Hawaii, Mississippi and Wisconsin. Tired and unable to do anything else, Ford went to bed at 3:20 a.m. The results determined there were no paths to victory for his campaign. Carter had won the election. At 9:00 a.m. Kennerly delivered the bad news to the President. Ford later wrote he was hurt and disappointed by the election's outcome but, overall, he was very proud of his campaign.
Some of his campaign staff wanted Ford to challenge the results in Wisconsin and Ohio due to talk of illegal voting practices. The President refused and said, "The election is over. We lost. I will not be a party to any recount or lawsuit in any state." With a hoarse voice, he gave Carter a congratulatory phone call shortly after 11:00 a.m. Reporters and television crews eagerly waited for the president to deliver his concession speech in the White House's Briefing Room. The entire Ford family gathered behind a single podium, and President Ford made a brief statement due to his failing voice. Betty, who he addressed as, "the real spokesman for the family," read his concession speech. She also recited the supportive words he had said to Carter over the phone. President Ford assured Carter and the American people he would foster a smooth transition period to the new President.
An upset Joe Garagiola came to the Oval Office with his family, and he and Ford consoled each other. There were many what-if questions to consider, but Ford resisted the urge to dwell on them. Instead, he worked on things he wanted to accomplish before Carter's inauguration. Ford later wrote that his son Jack had perfectly articulated his father's feelings when he said, "You know, when you come so close, it’s really hard to lose. But at the same time, if you can't lose as graciously as you had planned to win, then you shouldn't have been in the thing in the first place."
Special Assistant Mike Duval's election challenge contingency memo.
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Telegram from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter conceding the election.
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Letter from Jimmy Carter to President Ford starting the transition process.
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Letter from James A. Baker, III to President Ford following the election.
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MOR [Market Opinion Research] Summary Report analyzing the results of the 1976 Presidential Election.
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Memos from senior advisers to President Ford regarding information for his meeting with President-elect Jimmy Carter.
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Briefing Book for Second Ford Administration, "Never submitted to the President for obvious reasons."
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