Gerald Ford was the only president to hold office while never having staged a national campaign. Focused on healing the nation, Ford was at first reluctant to run for election in 1976 but soon changed his mind. Advisors assessed his candidacy and concluded that because people did not know him well, he had soft political support among the electorate and could not count on incumbency as an advantage. Candidates viewed as political "outsiders" were likely to have the upper hand. The perception that Ford's was a "caretaker" administration further weakened his image as a strong leader. The election would depend on the performance of the economy, advisors cautioned, as the nation struggled to emerge from the worst economic downturn since the Depression.
Looming large over Ford's candidacy was the former two-term governor of California, Ronald Reagan. A gifted orator, Reagan had contended for the Republican nomination in 1968. Motivated by his displeasure with Nixon and Ford's foreign policy, domestic issues, and Supreme Court rulings, Reagan reasoned that Ford's caretaker status placed him, not Ford, next in line.
President and Mrs. Ford dined with Ronald and Nancy Reagan in late March 1975. Mrs. Ford later wrote that both she and her husband left knowing Reagan would run. Still, advisors later admitted that the White House underestimated Reagan's candidacy as Ford brushed aside Reagan's rhetoric, which he felt offered unrealistic solutions to complex problems.
Though the two shared conservative instincts, Reagan cast Ford as an establishment Republican. The President argued that Reagan was too far to the right for the general electorate, even as he had twice offered Reagan positions in his Cabinet in 1975 and would allow the moderate Vice President Rockefeller to be pushed off the campaign ticket.
Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy on November 20. Ford's team hoped early primary wins would knock Reagan out of the race by March. Instead, the battle would extend to the Republican National Convention in August. Looking back on Reagan's challenge, Ford's Chief of Staff Richard Cheney later confessed, "We had a lot to learn in the White House."
Democratic candidates sought to take advantage of a newly expanded primary system and an anti-establishment political sentiment among the American people. The candidates included senators, former governors, and local political officials. Relying on grass-roots campaign efforts and a team of supporters known as the Peanut Brigade, former state senator and governor of Georgia Jimmy Carter took the lead. Largely unknown to the American public prior to his campaign, Carter capitalized on his "outsider" status to win support.
Scroll through the names below for brief biographies of each candidate.
Hubert Horatio Humphrey served as Vice President of the United States from 1965 to 1969 as well as U.S. Senator from Minnesota from 1949 to 1964 and again from 1971 to 1978. When President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew his candidacy for reelection in 1968, Humphrey won the Democratic Party's nomination. He lost the general election to Richard Nixon.
Henry Martin "Scoop" Jackson was a politician and lawyer from Washington. In 1940, Jackson was elected to Congress, serving there as a representative for Washington until his election to the United States Senate in 1952. Jackson unsuccessfully campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. Jackson served in the Senate continuously until his death in 1983.
Edmond G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. is a Democratic politician and lawyer from California and spent four terms as that state's governor throughout his political career. Brown unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic Presidential Party's nomination in 1980 and 1992 in addition to running in 1976.
James Earl (Jimmy) Carter Jr. graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946. Carter was elected to hold a Georgia State Senate seat in 1962. In 1971, he became the Governor of Georgia, serving until 1975. Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."
Fred Roy Harris is a lawyer and politician from Oklahoma. Harris served in the Oklahoma Senate from 1956 until 1964. In a special election held following the death of Senator Robert S. Kerr, Harris was elected to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat in 1964. He served as a Democrat in the U.S. Senate until 1973. He campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic party's nomination during the 1976 presidential election.
Morris King "Mo" Udall was a lawyer, businessman, and politician from Arizona. When his brother, Stewart Lee Udall, resigned his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to become the Secretary of the Interior, Udall was elected to fill the vacancy in 1961. Udall unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic party's presidential nomination in 1976. He served continuously in Congress until 1991.
Robert Sargent Shriver was a lawyer, diplomat, politician, and activist. He created the Office of Economic Opportunity and served as its first director from 1964 to 1968. He also served as the director of the Peace Corps from 1961 to 1966. In 1972, he was the Democratic Party's nominee for Vice President. He and Presidential-nominee George McGovern lost that election to Richard Nixon.
Edward Moore "Ted" Kennedy was a lawyer and Democratic politician from Massachusetts and the brother of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy was elected to fill his brother's vacant U.S Senate seat in 1962. Kennedy remained a potential presidential candidate throughout much of his career, making an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic party's nomination in 1980. Kennedy served continuously in the Senate until his death in 2009.
George Corley Wallace, Jr. was a Democratic politician from Alabama and served as that state’s governor for three terms. In 1964, 1972, and 1976 he unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination. In 1968, Wallace unsuccessfully ran for the presidency under the American Independent Party.
Frank Forrester Church was a lawyer and Democratic politician from Idaho. He was elected to the U.S. Senate for Idaho in 1956. In 1976, Church briefly campaigned for the presidency in the Democratic primaries, but withdrew. He served continuously in the Senate until 1981.
Birch Evans Bayh was a lawyer and Democratic politician from Indiana. After serving in the Indiana state legislature from 1954 to 1962, Bayh was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962. In 1976 he campaigned for the presidency in the Democratic primaries, but suspended his campaign by March 1976. He remained in the Senate until 1981.
Political aide John Calkins calls for the formation of a campaign organization.
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Ford political adviser Jack Stiles urges a quick start to the campaign to stave off a Ronald Reagan challenge.
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Ford authorizes President Ford Committee to solicit and receive contributions and to incur expenses.
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Gerald R. Ford's speech cards for the announcement of his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President.
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"Citizens for Reagan" committee is announced.
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Ronald Reagan announces his candidacy.
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Special Assistant Jerry Jones writes an "Eyes Only" memo concerning recent polls and Bob Teeter's advice on slowing Ronald Reagan's momentum.
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