1976 Presidential Election

The General Election: August - November, 1976

The General Election


"If past is indeed prologue, you will indeed lose on November 2, because to win you must do what has never been done: close a gap of about 20 points in 73 days from the base of a minority party while spending approximately the same amount of money as your opponent."

This memo, drafted by President Ford's campaign advisors, introduced the Republican nominee to the strategy they hoped would lift Ford to an historic win. Following the plan, Ford stayed in the White House through most of September, busying himself with presidential matters. The campaign would be built around three debates agreed to by Ford and Carter. The debates were held in Philadelphia (September 23), San Francisco (October 6), and Williamsburg, Virginia (October 22). Sandwiched in between were trips to the South, the West Coast, the Southwest, and a marathon run over the last ten days of the race that saw Ford campaign in fifteen states.

Throughout, though plagued by errors both self-inflicted and unexpected, Ford steadily closed the gap in the polls. By the campaign's last weekend, some showed the race a dead heat. President and Mrs. Ford cast their votes in Grand Raids on Election Day, November 2, and returned to the White House, tired yet optimistic.

President Ford and John Wayne together in a parade car duringn a campaign rally in California.

The General Election

Key Issues

In the September 1976 issue of Playboy magazine, Jimmy Carter discussed his views on sexual morality and forgiveness. Carter said, "I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do—and I have done it—and God forgives me for it. But that doesn't mean that I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says don't consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife." Marge Thurman, the Chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, thought Carter ruined his chance to win the election since many of his conservative supporters ended up being shocked by what he said in that interview.

President Ford and his advisors considered the remarks a gift. Ford closed the gap in the lead up to the general election, but he later wrote he was disappointed that the media did not take more of an interest in that interview of Carter's. A member of Ford's campaign who was involved in advertising, Malcolm MacDougall, agreed. He said, "I think Playboy could have killed Jimmy Carter. But we weren't mean enough or shrewd enough to make a mountain out of the molehill. We thought the media would do the job for us."

Carter repeatedly promised in his campaign that he would never lie to the American public. Such a bold claim frustrated the Ford camp. Members of Ford's team generally felt that Carter was willing to change any of his views on policies if it would benefit him politically. During his September 15 fall campaign kickoff speech, Ford took aim at the views of Carter's that he considered to be scattered. He said, "It's not enough for anyone to say trust me. Trust must be earned. Trust is not having to guess what a candidate means. Trust is leveling with the people before the election about what you are going to do after the election. Trust is not being all things to all people but being the same thing to all people. Trust is not cleverly shading words so that each separate audience can hear what it wants to hear but saying plainly and simply what you mean, and meaning what you say."

He reminded the audience of his honest, straightforward attitude before declaring, "My record is one of progress, not platitudes. My record is one of specifics, not smiles." President Ford wanted people to trust and judge him based on his accomplishments in office. He wanted to draw a distinction between himself and Carter by referencing his proven record as President.

President Ford wanted to balance the federal budget by 1979. Deeply concerned about government spending growing at a rate of more than 10 percent per year, he vetoed 56 bills during his term. Congress only overrode 10 of them. Congress only overrode 10 of them. Ford's ability to veto bills was one of the most important tools he had in his arsenal. He thought vetoing specific bills in order to cut back on government spending would likely contribute to decreases in inflation and unemployment in the long run. During his term he reduced the growth of government spending by 50 percent.

Ford's team believed that Carter had the opposite effect on Georgia's budget when he served as the state's governor. A 30-second commercial was created to bring the public's attention to this issue. It incorporated the last line of a previously run Carter advertisement, "What Jimmy Carter did as Governor of Georgia; he will do as President of the United States." Over an image of the shape of Georgia, Ford's team placed statistics that they felt represented Carter's budget mismanagement. The words "Don’t let him do as President what he did as Governor" appeared before the commercial ended.

In the summer of 1975 President Ford attended the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Along with 34 other nations, he signed the Helsinki Final Act (also known as the Helsinki Accords) at a summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland. The act focused on agreements related to security in Europe and respect for national authority, economic and trade relations, human rights, and freedom of movement. Although not a treaty or a legally binding agreement, the Helsinki Final Act formed a statement of intent between the participating nations.

The origins of the CSCE go back to 1954 when the Soviet Union first proposed a European security conference in the hopes of formalizing the political boundaries established in Eastern Europe following World War II. The United States and the other Western nations were reluctant to engage in such discussions during the 1950s and 1960s, since they thought it would strengthen the Soviet position and lead to an expansion of communism. With easing tensions in mind during the early 1970s, the Western leaders reconsidered their stance and began negotiations.

Ford received backlash for signing the act, but it did not keep him from winning the Republican nomination in the primaries. During the general election Carter criticized the lack of enforcement regarding the freedom of movement of people and ideas. However, during his presidency he supported the act and encouraged greater acceptance of it in the late 1970s.

Ford wanted to create even more jobs for Americans, a goal he frequently promoted in his campaign. He had already successfully increased the number of jobs in the country. When he took office, inflation was very high and the recession was not showing signs of stopping. Congress wanted to spend billions on tax-supported job programs that did not offer immediate help or financial benefits. The President disagreed with this approach because he believed these jobs would result in higher inflation and taxes and eventually more unemployment. Ford put his efforts towards implementing programs, policy change, and creating conditions and incentives that private companies could utilize to create jobs with benefits and financial stability for their employees. Ford secured over 2,000,000 jobs for Americans during his term. Almost 800,000 people became employed just in January 1976.

Ford became President at a time when inflation was surging. Expressing concern that government policies or programs might be contributing to inflation, he asked his economic advisors to study the matter. In 1974 he introduced a program created by his advisors called Whip Inflation Now (WIP). The program promoted actions people could take to combat inflation, such as carpooling and reducing food waste. While met with great enthusiasm by the public, the New York Times claimed the program had many weaknesses shortly after its introduction. The public's excitement did not last in the following months, and the program was not successful.

A recession began in late 1973 that lasted until early 1975. In late 1976, inflation was predicted to rise again. Inflation was a persistent topic throughout the three presidential debates. Ford defended his economic record during the first debate and claimed Carter endorsed the Democratic platform. Ford said the Democratic platform, "called for more spending, bigger deficits, more inflation, or more taxes." In the second and third debates Carter strongly criticized Ford's approach to decreasing inflation, but Ford continued to support his choices. By the end of Ford's term inflation was at a four-year low.

Before he became President, Ford began his career in Washington, DC, in 1949 as a US Congressman from Michigan. He remained in that position until he became Vice President in 1973. By 1976 he had been involved in many documented political decisions. Ford used this to his advantage while campaigning. Carter's approach was the opposite. He was an outsider, but he embraced the hard work he did on his family's farm. He presented himself as a relatable candidate who could restore the nation's capital, regardless of his lack of experience. After the trauma and tragedy of the Vietnam War and Watergate, the idea of an outsider coming in to restore public confidence in national government was deeply appealing to many Americans.

President Ford found it curious that Carter was able to "transform his being an outsider from a liability to a virtue." He later wrote, "How ironic it was, I thought, that his limited experience in government could turn out to be an advantage for him." Ford's team wanted to convey Carter as someone who would not be able to keep promises due to his lack of experience and misunderstanding of Washington DC. This campaign goal received negative comments from the media. Late in the campaign a New York Times article described Ford's strategy as merely showing off by acting presidential and experienced in the White House while casting Carter as inexperienced and uncertain on important issues.

During the campaign Ford drew attention to his policy of peace through strength. He thought having a strong military force enabled the United States to negotiate with foreign opponents and maintain peace between countries. He emphasized his belief that he pursued a more constructive relationship with the Soviet Union and helped the Middle East move towards a secure, just, and comprehensive peace settlement. He also thought the pursuit of peace required making decisions quickly and effectively, citing the USS Mayaguez incident as an example of his ability to do so. When Cambodians illegally seized the ship, he ordered and directed the recovery of it and its crew by U.S. Marines. The President's timely response to the situation upheld the right of innocent passage on the open sea.

The General Election


While prepping for the first debate, the presidential candidates' aides made adjustments to ensure that the discussion would flow smoothly. Over four days, Ford spent nine hours under bright spotlights as his aides asked him challenging practice questions. Each session was recorded so Ford could carefully review his performances before the actual debate.

The first debate was held on September 23 at the historic Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A flip of a coin determined who would receive the first question, and Carter won the toss. A newscaster asked Carter what his first step would be to reduce unemployment, a problem he considered a priority. After Carter answered, Ford confidently pointed out that Carter had not mentioned the Humphrey-Hawkins bill previously endorsed by the Democratic nominee. Ford explained how implementing the bill would perhaps help the economy, but claimed it would also control it. Ford and Carter continued to debate domestic issues and economic policy throughout the 90-minute event. Within minutes of the program ending, technical difficulties caused a delay which lasted nearly 30-minutes. Newscasters provided commentary during the outage, and the debate successfully concluded when staff fixed the audio issues. Days later the poll results were processed revealing that Ford had won the first debate.

The second debate focused on issues related to foreign policy and national defense. About 15 minutes into the discussion, the moderator asked Ford a lengthy question involving the Soviet Union. In his response Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." The moderator seemed baffled by his response and asked him to confirm his statements. Ford insisted he believed that Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia were free from Soviet interference. At the time the Soviet Union did in fact dominate Polish territory by stationing troops there. When given a chance to respond Carter disagreed with what he had said, and the candidates continued to discuss other issues as scheduled. Despite Ford's puzzling comments one of the initial polls indicated he won the debate by eleven percent.

Barbara Walters moderated the third debate, which took place on October 22. Unlike the other two debates, this discussion was open to all issues and topics. Various questions were asked, including inquiries involving problems in specific cities, minorities, gun control, and the Supreme Court. Shortly after the debate began, one of the questioners asked Ford if he would be willing to release tapes of conversations held in the White House during the time that Watergate had occurred or if he could ask those with the authority to do so. His response was, "That’s for the proper authorities who have control over those tapes to make that decision. I have given every bit of evidence, answered every question that's been asked of me by any senator or any member of the House. Plus the fact that the special prosecutor, on his own initiation, and the attorney general on his initiation, the highest law enforcement official in this country; all of them have given me a clean bill of health. And I’ve told everything I know about it. I think the matter is settled once and for all." When one of the questioners asked Carter if he would like to respond to Ford's statement, he said he did not have a response. The questioners continued to ask the two candidates for their opinions and did not bring up Watergate again.

A coin toss a month earlier in Philadelphia determined that President Ford would make the first closing statement of the third debate. Each candidate had four minutes to do so. Ford summarized his experience in Congress and as President. He then pointed out that he believed his Presidency had healed the American people in a difficult time and reminded the audience he had always been "candid and forthright." He expressed his love for the country and said he would be honored to have support on election day. He let the audience know he wanted them to say, "Jerry Ford, you've done a good job, keep on doing it."

Carter began his closing statement with his beliefs about the election and current administration. "The major purpose of an election for President is to choose a leader. Someone who can analyze the depths of feeling in our country to set a standard for our people to follow, to inspire our people to reach for greatness, to correct our defects, to answer difficult questions, to bind ourselves together in a spirit of unity." He claimed the Ford administration had not made much progress. Carter highlighted his experience outside of politics and said he could work with Congress and bring a new spirit to Washington, DC. He mentioned inflation and employment and said that through working together, he could revitalize the country. He ended his comments saying, "And with inspiration and hard work we can achieve great things. And let the world know – that's very important. But more importantly, let the people in our own country realize that we still live in the greatest nation on earth. Thank you very much."

The General Election

Campaign Story

Ford traveled to Vail, Colorado, on August 20 to discuss campaign strategies with his team. Shortly after arriving he discovered that Carter had a strong lead in the polls. Ford and his senior aides, along with Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Vice Presidential running mate Robert Dole, and Texas Governor John Connally, spent the following days developing the best campaign strategy while seated by the fireplace of their rented chalet. Ford had chosen five central themes he wanted to highlight in his campaign. One of the most important themes focused on a single word, "trust." Ford thought his opinions on political matters were not voters' greatest concern. He felt that having a genuine, trustworthy President in the White House was the focus of voters, and he hoped his honest Presidency made Americans view him as reliable.

Ford's team wanted to promote policies they believed could be implemented within the next four years. They wanted to create millions of new jobs, boost homeownership, provide quality, affordable health care, and reduce crime. The Rose Garden Strategy was determined to be the most effective approach. This strategy meant Ford would stay in the White House while Dole traveled and campaigned. Ford would continue to perform his presidential responsibilities, which he believed would make him appear to be a strong, experienced candidate. Ford also believed that making appearances across the country was not to his benefit, as doing so during the primaries, in campaigning against Ronald Reagan, had not improved his public image. Reducing travel costs would also help the campaign team stay within their federally approved budget.

On August 19, 1976, the Republican Party nominated Ford as its Presidential candidate. While actively campaigning, he continued to carry out his Presidential responsibilities. On September 13, Ford signed the Government in the Sunshine Act requiring that many government regulatory agencies give advance notice of meetings and hold open meetings. The new law also amended the Freedom of Information Act "by narrowing the authority of agencies to withhold information from the public."

Prior to the first debate, an allegation against Ford came to light. According to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, Jesse Calhoon, President of the Maritime Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA), became very upset with Ford for vetoing a cargo preference bill. Calhoon accused Ford of accepting undisclosed funds from the MEBA in support of Ford's congressional campaign. Even though the government verified all of Ford's records before confirming him as Vice President, the FBI became involved and reviewed his records again. Ford was found innocent, but the allegation and investigation made headlines in the news that negatively impacted his campaign.

Ford arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on September 15 to give his first speech for the campaign at his alma mater. The university was chosen because Ford earned a Bachelor's in Arts Degree in economics and political science from that university in 1935. His personal connection made it the perfect place to start, and it was fitting since that is where he began his political career. It was raining earlier in the day, but the weather did not keep people from attending. A crowd of about 15,000 gathered in the University of Michigan's Crisler Arena to hear the President speak. In his remarks he outlined his "vision for a better America" related to jobs, home ownership, health care, education, crime prevention, and foreign policy. He said, "The question in this campaign of 1976 is not, who has the better vision of America? The question is, who will act to make that vision a reality? The American people are ready for the truth, simply spoken, about what government can do for them and what it cannot do and what it should not do." Ford returned to Washington, DC, that night and prepared for the first debate with Carter.

On September 25 Ford and Betty greeted their supporters and the mayor of Lutcher, Louisiana, before departing on a campaign cruise. Captain Clarke C. (Doc) Hawley steered a double-decked red and white steamboat named the SS Natchez down the Mississippi River, beginning Ford's efforts to win the votes of Southern states. While standing on the upper deck, the President and First Lady waved to people along the route and docked at three areas in Louisiana: Reserve, LaPlace, and Destrehan. At each stop they spoke with dignitaries in addition to crowds that had gathered to meet them. After nearly eight hours the trip ended in New Orleans at Jackson Square, a National Historic Landmark located in the French Quarter. The following day they continued to campaign in Mississippi. They also campaigned in Alabama and Florida before returning to Washington DC.

Campaigning was not a job just for Ford and his team. His family members contributed to his campaigns too. Betty helped her husband in a unique way by getting a Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) broadcast license. CBRS is a private, two-way, short-distance voice communications service for personal or business activities of the general public. Susan gifted her a portable radio and tuned-in listeners heard Betty advocating for Ford using the radio nickname, referred to as a handle, "First Mama." She brought this radio with her while traveling and also broadcasted from the White House. She started using this strategy as early as the primary campaigns.

Their children campaigned in other ways. Jack and Steven were very active on behalf of their father by making frequent public appearances. They participated in supportive activities including interviews, press conferences, and public speaking, especially at college campuses. Steven spoke at the University of Texas as part of the effort to inspire Southern states to vote for Ford. When asked in an interview why he joined the campaign trail, he replied, "I'm campaigning to help repay all the things Dad has done for the family, and also because he's the experienced leader the country needs right now." Susan represented the President in several states by participating in parades, including the annual Rose Festival Parade in Tyler, Texas.

Nixon appointed Earl Butz as Secretary of Agriculture in 1971, and he remained in that position when Ford became President in 1974. While serving under Ford, he was involved in a scandal less than a month before election day. He made a racist remark on a commercial flight and former White House counsel John Dean overheard. As a special correspondent Dean was assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone magazine covering the Republican National Convention. In his article he mentioned that a member of Ford's Cabinet made an inappropriate comment. New Times Nmagazine determined that the Secretary of Agriculture had made the comment and their story on the incident included his name. When Butz approached the President, Ford let him know his alleged language and attitudes were unacceptable in his administration. Butz planned on giving a public apology, but the country's outrage resulted in his decision to leave his position on October 4. Ford accepted his resignation immediately.

Many people were unhappy with Ford's statements during the second debate regarding Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. Ford later wrote he was referring to the spirit, heart, and soul of the people living in those countries, meaning their spirits could not be crushed. However, that was unclear during the debate, and newspapers printed articles about the mishap immediately. Ford quickly tried to put the media frenzy to rest. He clarified his controversial remarks in multiple speeches throughout the following days, but he unintentionally used language that implied he was still unaware of the situation. He later released a general, clear statement that confirmed he knew there were Soviet troops in Eastern Europe. Despite his multiple attempts to clarify these statements, he may have lost votes in the election due to them.

According to Counselor to the President Robert Hartmann, Ford’s strength in Iowa was primarily centered in the medium-sized towns while support for Carter was strongest in the metropolitan areas. This meant the swing vote in Iowa would most likely come from rural areas and small towns where farm-related issues were of major importance. Hartmann also felt that farmers needed an additional explanation of the three-month grain embargo Ford had implemented in 1974. The embargo prohibited grain sales to the Soviet Union, and farmers felt they had lost thousands of dollars. Grain prices had also decreased. Many Iowan citizens and Governor Robert Ray also did not support Ford's veto of an animal health research bill. Even so, Ray was actively campaigning on Ford's behalf, and many of his advocates had traveled to Iowa to encourage farmers to support him. The President addressed these topics when he spoke at multiple places in Iowa, including the state's university, the Marshall P. King State Farm, and the College of Veterinary Medicine in Ames on October 15. The following day Ford spoke in Illinois and Missouri, states where farming was essential. Electoral votes from Iowa and Illinois ended up supporting Ford, but Carter won the electoral votes in Missouri.

In order to win the election on November 2 1976, Ford needed to secure the majority of votes in five of the eight largest states. Within 10 days of the end of his campaign, he led in only three of them. On October 23, the day after the third presidential debate, Ford got right back to campaigning. He started the day in Virginia, made stops in North and South Carolina, and ended in California. He later wrote about being disappointed that Governor Reagan declined to campaign with him in California. Between October 25 and October 31 he traveled to Washington State, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri and Texas, thousands of demanding miles all for a final push. The continuous heavy travel exhausted Ford. However, he was happy with the results of one of the polls, which revealed he was leading Carter, 47 to 46. Ford took his first lead with him to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he ended his campaign-related travels on November 1.

On the afternoon of November 1, Ford arrived in Detroit, Michigan. Betty greeted him, ready to accompany him on the last of the campaigning. In the evening they flew to their hometown of Grand Rapids and participated in a motorcade parade in the city's downtown area. Afterwards they attended a rally at the Pantlind Hotel, the building that became the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. The President spoke to a crowd filled with familiar faces, even though his voice was essentially gone due to his intense campaigning. He asked the citizens to vote for him and promised he would not let them down.

He and Betty woke up early the next morning and cast their votes before they traveled to Grand Rapids' Kent County Airport for the unveiling of an artwork honoring Ford's experiences and family. Local artist Paul Collins had painted an 8' by 18' mural featuring him in various stages of his life and rise to Presidency. An emotional Ford paid tribute to his parents by saying he owed everything to them including his accomplishments. He said all the good things he was capable of found their roots in what they had taught him. After viewing the mural, the Fords flew back to Washington, DC, to await the outcome of the election.

The General Election



Campaign Strategy for President Ford document compiled by Special Assistant Mike Duval, as discussed during the post-convention meetings in Vail, Colorado.
  Link to Strategy (web page)


Ford friend and advisor David Belin submits Strategy Paper No. 11, "The Ford-Carter Debates: Key Strategy Considerations".
  View Paper (PDF)


Updated "President Ford '76 Factbook" distributed by President Ford Committee.
  Link to Factbook (web page)


Transcript of the first Presidential debate (domestic policy).
  Link to Transcript (web page)


White House aides Jerry Jones and David Gergen write to President Ford about his objectives in traveling to the South.
  View Letter (PDF)


Transcript of the second Presidential debate (foreign policy).
  Link to Transcript (web page)


President Ford Committee Chairman Jim Baker holds a press conference to discuss campaign progress and factors slowing recent momentum.
  Press Conference Notes (PDF)


President Ford Committee Newsletter with the lead story "President Gaining in Polls".
  View Newsletter (PDF)


Transcript of the third Presidential debate (all topics).
  Link to Transcript (web page)


Counsellor Jack Marsh suggests speech themes for the return home to Michigan.
  View Document (PDF)

The General Election


President Ford's campaign kickoff speech at the University of Michigan's Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan (09/15/76)

Ford and Carter Campaign TV Ads

Debate Videos

President Ford in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with Joe Garagiola (10/27/76)