United States presidential election, 1976

The United States presidential election of 1976 was the 48th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 2, 1976. The winner was the relatively unknown former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate, over the incumbent President Gerald Ford, the Republican candidate.

President Richard Nixon had resigned in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, but before doing so, he appointed Ford as Vice President via the Twenty-fifth Amendment after Spiro Agnew resigned in the light of a scandal that implicated him in receiving illegal bribes when he was Governor of Maryland. Ford was thus the only sitting President who had never been previously elected to national office. Saddled with a poor economy, the fall of South Vietnam, and paying a heavy political price for his pardon of Nixon, Ford first faced serious opposition from within his own party, when he was challenged for the Republican Party's nomination by former California governor and future President Ronald Reagan. The race was so close that Ford was not able to secure the nomination until the Party Convention. Carter, who was less well known than other Democratic hopefuls, ran as a Washington outsider and reformer. Carter narrowly won the election, becoming the first president elected from the Deep South since Zachary Taylor in 1848.


United States presidential election, 1976

Democratic Party

Democratic candidates

  • Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia
  • Jerry Brown, governor of California
  • George Wallace, governor of Alabama
  • Morris Udall, U.S. representative from Arizona
  • Henry M. Jackson, U.S. senator from Washington
  • Frank Church, U.S. senator from Idaho
  • Robert Byrd, U.S. senator from West Virginia
  • Sargent Shriver, former U.S. ambassador to France, from Maryland
  • Fred R. Harris, former U.S. senator from Oklahoma
  • Birch Bayh, U.S. senator from Indiana
  • Lloyd Bentsen, U.S. senator from Texas
  • Terry Sanford, former governor of North Carolina
  • Milton Shapp, governor of Pennsylvania
  • Walter Fauntroy, U.S. delegate from Washington, D.C.
  • Ellen McCormack, housewife

Candidates gallery

The surprise winner of the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination was Jimmy Carter, a former state senator and governor of Georgia. When the primaries began, Carter was little-known at the national level, and many political pundits regarded a number of better-known candidates, such as Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington, Congressman Morris Udall of Arizona, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, and California Governor Jerry Brown, as the favorites for the nomination. However, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Carter realized that his status as a Washington outsider, political centrist, and moderate reformer could give him an advantage over his better-known establishment rivals. Carter also took advantage of the record number of state primaries and caucuses in 1976 to eliminate his better-known rivals one-by-one.

Senator Jackson made a fateful decision not to compete in the early Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, which Jimmy Carter won after liberals split their votes among four other candidates. Though Jackson went on to win the Massachusetts and New York primaries, he was forced to quit the race on May 1 after losing the critical Pennsylvania primary to Carter by twelve percentage points. Carter then defeated Governor Wallace, his main conservative challenger, by a wide margin in the North Carolina primary, thus forcing Wallace to end his campaign. Congressman Udall, a liberal, then became Carter's main challenger. He finished second to Carter in the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New York, Michigan, South Dakota, and Ohio primaries, and won the caucuses in his home state of Arizona, while running even with Carter in the New Mexico caucuses. However, the fact that Udall finished second to Carter in most of these races meant that Carter steadily accumulated more delegates for the nomination than he did.

As Carter closed in on the nomination, an "ABC" (Anybody But Carter) movement started among Northern and Western liberal Democrats who worried that Carter's Southern upbringing would make him too conservative for the Democratic Party. The leaders of the "ABC" movement - Idaho Senator Frank Church and California Governor Jerry Brown - both announced their candidacies for the Democratic nomination and defeated Carter in several late primaries. However, their campaigns started too late to prevent Carter from gathering the remaining delegates he needed to capture the nomination.

By June 1976, Carter had captured more than enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination. At the 1976 Democratic National Convention, Carter easily won the nomination on the first ballot; Udall finished in second place. Carter then chose Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, a liberal and political protégé of Hubert Humphrey, as his running mate.

Republican Party

Republican candidates

  • Gerald Ford, President of the United States from Michigan
  • Ronald Reagan, former governor of California

Candidates gallery

The contest for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 1976 was between two serious candidates: Gerald Ford, the leader of the Republican Party's moderate wing and the incumbent president, from Michigan; and Ronald Reagan, the leader of the Republican Party's conservative wing and the former two-term governor of California. The presidential primary campaign between the two men was hard-fought and relatively even; by the start of the Republican Convention in August 1976, the race for the nomination was still too close to call. Ford defeated Reagan by a narrow margin on the first ballot at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, and chose Senator Bob Dole of Kansas as his running mate in place of incumbent Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, who had announced the previous year that he was not interested in being considered for the Vice Presidential nomination. The 1976 Republican Convention was the last political convention to open with the presidential nomination still being undecided until the actual balloting at the convention.


  • Roger MacBride, who had gained fame in the 1972 election as a faithless elector, ran as the candidate of the Libertarian Party.
  • Eugene McCarthy, a former Democratic Senator from Minnesota, ran as an independent candidate.

General election

Fall campaign

One of the advantages Ford held over Carter as the general election campaign began was that, as president, he was privileged to preside over events dealing with the United States Bicentennial; this often resulted in favorable publicity for Ford. The Washington, D.C., fireworks display on the Fourth of July was presided over by the president and televised nationally. On July 7, 1976, the president and First Lady served as hosts at a White House state dinner for Elizabeth II and Prince Philip of the United Kingdom, which was televised on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network. These events were part of Ford's "Rose Garden" strategy to win the election; instead of appearing as a typical politician, Ford presented himself as a "tested leader" who was busily fulfilling the role of national leader and Chief Executive. Not until October did Ford leave the White House to campaign actively across the nation.

Jimmy Carter ran as a reformer who was "untainted" by Washington political scandals, which many voters found attractive in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which had led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. Ford, although personally unconnected with Watergate, was seen by many as too close to the discredited Nixon administration, especially after he granted Nixon a presidential pardon for any crimes he might have committed during his term of office. Ford's pardon of Nixon caused his popularity, as measured by public-opinion polls, to plummet. Ford's refusal to explain his reasons for pardoning Nixon publicly (he would do so in his memoirs several years later), also hurt his image.

Ford unsuccessfully asked Congress to end the 1950s-era price controls on natural gas, which caused a dwindling of American natural gas reserves after the 1973 Oil Crisis. Carter stated during his campaign that he opposed the ending of the price controls and thought such a move would be "disastrous."

After the Democratic National Convention, Carter held a huge 33-point lead over Ford in the polls. However, as the campaign continued, the race greatly tightened. During the campaign Playboy magazine published a controversial interview with Carter; in the interview, Carter admitted to having "lusted in my heart" for women other than his wife, which cut into his support among women and evangelical Christians. Also, on September 23, Ford performed well in what was the first televised presidential debate since 1960. Polls taken after the debate showed that most viewers felt that Ford was the winner. Carter was also hurt by Ford's charges that he lacked the necessary experience to be an effective national leader, and that Carter was vague on many issues.

However, Ford also committed a costly blunder in the campaign that halted his momentum. During the second presidential debate on October 6, Ford stumbled when he asserted that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." He added that he did not "believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union", and made the same claim with regards to Yugoslavia and Romania. (Yugoslavia was not a Warsaw Pact member.) Ford refused to retract his statement for almost a week after the debate, as a result his surge in the polls stalled and Carter was able to maintain a slight lead in the polls.

A vice-presidential debate, the first ever formal one of its kind, between Bob Dole and Walter Mondale also hurt the Republican ticket when Dole asserted that military unpreparedness on the part of Democratic presidents was responsible for all of the wars the U.S. had fought in the 20th century. Dole, a World War II veteran, noted that in every 20th-century war from World War I to the Vietnam War, a Democrat had been President. Dole then pointed out that the number of U.S. casualties in "Democrat wars" was roughly equal to the population of Detroit. Many voters felt that Dole's criticism was unfairly harsh and that his dispassionate delivery made him seem cold. Years later, Dole would remark that he regretted the comment, having viewed it as hurting the Republican ticket. One factor which did help Ford in the closing days of the campaign was a series of popular television appearances he did with Joe Garagiola, Sr., a retired baseball star for the St. Louis Cardinals and a well-known announcer for NBC Sports. Garagiola and Ford appeared in a number of shows in several large cities. During the show Garagiola would ask Ford questions about his life and beliefs; the shows were so informal, relaxed, and laid-back that some television critics labelled them the "Joe and Jerry Show." Ford and Garagiola obviously enjoyed one another's company, and they remained friends after the election was over.


Despite his campaign's blunders, Ford managed to close the remaining gap in the polls and by election day the race was judged to be even. Election day was November 2, and it took most of that night and the following morning to determine the winner. It wasn't until 3:30 am (EST), that the NBC television network was able to pronounce that Carter had carried Mississippi, and had thus accumulated more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win (seconds later, ABC News also declared Carter the winner based on projections for Carter in Wisconsin and Hawaii; CBS News announced Carter's victory at 3:45 am). Carter defeated Ford by two percentage points in the national popular vote.

The electoral vote was the closest since 1916; Carter carried 23 states with 297 electoral votes, while Ford won 27 states and 240 electoral votes (one elector from Washington state, pledged to Ford, voted for Reagan). Carter's victory came primarily from his near-sweep of the South (he lost only Virginia and Oklahoma) and his narrow victories in large Northern states such as New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Ford did well in the West, carrying every state except Hawaii. The most tightly contested state in the election was Oregon, which Ford won by a very narrow margin.

A switch of 3,687 votes in Hawaii and 5,559 votes in Ohio from Carter to Ford would have resulted in Ford winning the election with 270 electoral votes. By percentage of the vote, the states that secured Carter's victory were Wisconsin (1.68% margin) and Ohio (.27% margin). Had Ford won these states and all other states he carried, he would have won the presidency. The 27 states Ford won were and remain the most states ever carried by a losing candidate for president of the United States.

Carter was the first Democrat since John F. Kennedy in 1960 to carry the states of the Deep South, and the first since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to carry a majority of all southern states. Carter performed very strongly in his home state of Georgia, carrying 66.7% of the vote and every county in the state. His 50.1% of the vote was the only time since 1964 that a Democrat managed to obtain a majority of the popular vote in a presidential election until Barack Obama won 52.9% of the vote in 2008. Carter is one of five Democrats since the American Civil War to obtain a majority of the popular vote, the others being Samuel J. Tilden, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Barack Obama.

Had Ford won the election, the provisions of the 22nd amendment would have disqualified him from running in 1980, because he had served more than two years of Nixon's second term.

This election represents the last time to date that Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina would vote Democratic, and the last time North Carolina would vote Democratic until 2008.


Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. 1976 Presidential Election Results. Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections (August 7, 2005).

Source (Electoral Vote): Electoral College Box Scores 1789â€"1996. Official website of the National Archives. (August 7, 2005).

(a) Mike Padden, a Republican faithless elector from Washington, gave Ronald Reagan one electoral vote.
(b) The running mate of McCarthy varied from state to state.
(c) Research has not yet determined whether Anderson's home state was Tennessee or Texas at the time of the 1976 election.

Results by state

As of 2012, this election represents the second and last time that the winning candidate has received a majority of the electoral votes although the second-place candidate carried a majority of the states. It had previously happened in the 1960 election.

Close states

States where margin of victory was under 5% (299 electoral votes):

  1. Oregon, 0.17%
  2. Ohio, 0.27%
  3. Maine, 0.84%
  4. Iowa, 1.01%
  5. Oklahoma, 1.21%
  6. Virginia, 1.34%
  7. South Dakota, 1.48%
  8. Wisconsin, 1.68%
  9. California, 1.78%
  10. Mississippi, 1.88%
  11. Illinois, 1.97%
  12. New Jersey, 2.16%
  13. New Mexico, 2.47%
  14. Hawaii, 2.53%
  15. Pennsylvania, 2.66%
  16. Texas, 3.17%
  17. Missouri, 3.63%
  18. Washington, 3.88%
  19. Nevada, 4.36%
  20. New York, 4.43%

States where margin of victory was more than 5%, but less than 10% (105 electoral votes):

  1. Connecticut, 5.16%
  2. Florida, 5.29%
  3. Michigan, 5.39%
  4. Delaware, 5.41%
  5. Louisiana, 5.78%
  6. North Dakota, 5.86%
  7. Maryland, 6.08%
  8. Kentucky, 7.18%
  9. Montana, 7.44%
  10. Kansas, 7.55%
  11. Indiana, 7.62%

Voter demographics

Source: CBS News/ New York Times interviews with 12,782 voters as they left the polls, as reported in the New York Times, November 9, 1980, p. 28, and in further analysis. The 1976 data are from CBS News interviews.

Unique facts and characteristics

United States presidential election, 1976
  • As of 2012, the 1976 election was the most recent time that a Democratic candidate carried any of the following states: Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. North Carolina did not vote for a Democratic candidate again until Obama in 2008. Obama also carried Virginia, the only state in the South that Carter did not win.
  • As of 2012, Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat to win a presidential election while losing any of the following states: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would win them all in both of their campaigns, while in the close elections of 2000 and 2004, Al Gore won all but Nevada and New Hampshire, and John Kerry won all but Iowa, Nevada, and New Mexico. Carter is also the last first-time Democratic candidate to be elected without carrying Colorado (Clinton won the state in 1992, but lost it in his re-election campaign in 1996, while Obama won the state in both 2008 and 2012).
  • 1976 marked the first year that a television news network used colors to represent the states won by the candidates. John Chancellor, the anchorman for the NBC Nightly News, suggested to his network's engineers that they create a large electronic map of the United States; the map was placed in the network's election-night news studio. If Carter carried a state it would light up in red, if Ford won a state it would light up in blue. The feature proved to be so popular that all three major news networks would adopt the feature for the 1980 presidential election, and it has since become a staple of election-night broadcasts, although the colors for both parties have been reversed.
  • This election was the first time since 1908, and last time to date, that Nevada did not back the winning candidate.
    It was also the first election that New Mexico did not back the winning candidate and the only election that New Mexico did not back the popular vote winner since it had achieved statehood in 1912.
  • Ford carried 27 out of 50 states, the most ever won by a losing candidate. He became the second and, to date, the last person not to win the presidency while carrying more than half the states. The first was Nixon in 1960, who won in 26 states.
  • With 1,711 counties voting for Carter, this election was the last time that the Democratic candidate won more counties than his Republican opponent.
  • This election marks the only time in U.S. history that the two major candidates and their running mates would all run for and lose the presidency, coming second in the general election: Ford in 1976, Carter in 1980, Mondale in 1984 and Dole in 1996.
  • This decision marked the first time since 1944 that a candidate with prior gubernatorial experience won the presidential election. Six of the next 7 such contests would be won by a candidate who was either a prior or sitting governor.
  • This election is also the last election as of 2014 for a Democratic candidate to have won all the states in the Deep South. Carter carried every state in what had been the Confederacy except Virginia.

See also

  • Presidency of Jimmy Carter
  • History of the United States (1964â€"1980)
  • United States Senate elections, 1976
  • Inauguration of Jimmy Carter


  • Shirley, Craig (2005). Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson. ISBN 978-0785260493. . review by Human Events


External links

  • The Election Wall's 1976 Election Video Page
  • 1976 popular vote by counties
  • 1976 popular vote by states (with bar graphs)
  • Campaign commercials from the 1976 election
  • How close was the 1976 election? at the Wayback Machine (archived August 25, 2012) â€" Michael Sheppard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (archived)
  • Election of 1976 in Counting the Votes

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