The D-Days of ‘76: Carter vs. Ford

Published 4:00 pm Wednesday, October 26, 2016


The main development of the fall campaign in 1976 was the return of presidential debates. There were three debates that year between Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter and Republican candidate Gerald Ford.
The Americus Times-Recorder identified debate day as “D-Day”. The dates were Sept. 23, Oct. 6, and Oct. 22. Each presidential debate was 90 minutes. The League of Women Voters sponsored all of them. For the first time, too, there was one vice presidential debate. Walter Mondale and Bob Dole faced off for 75 minutes on Oct. 15 in Houston, Texas.
The 1976 presidential debates were the first ones since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. There were no debates in 1964, 1968, or 1972. In 1964 and 1972, the incumbent presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, held significant leads over their opponents in national surveys and did not see any advantage in participating in debates.
The conventional wisdom was debates favored the underdog who had everything to gain in a debate and nothing to lose. At a minimum, appearing on the debate stage with the election favorite, especially if the favorite was a sitting president, raised the profile and credibility of the candidate who was trailing. Debates provided the underdog a tremendous opportunity to be “presidential”.
In 1968, the major party candidates, Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, could not agree on how to include, or whether to include, third-party challenger George Wallace. Without an agreement, there were no debates.
At the conclusion of the Republican primaries in June, Ford told reporters that he would not commit to debating Carter. It was up for consideration. However, polls showed the President far behind Carter. During the summer of 1976, Ford trailed Carter by more than 30 percentage points. He was desperate to turn things around for his candidacy. Ford ultimately wanted debates. Never before had an incumbent president participated in a presidential debate.
In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, the President said he welcomed the opportunity to debate Carter. “I am eager to go before the American people and debate the real issues face to face with Jimmy Carter. The American people have a right to know firsthand exactly where both of us stand.” Carter accepted the challenge.
Carter’s prospects of becoming the 39th president appeared solid in early September. Time magazine said that 1976 “once looked like a Carter runaway.” According to the Gallup Organization, Carter led President Gerald Ford by 15 percentage points, 51 to 36.
The first debate was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That evening, Sept. 23, the focus was on domestic policy. The moderator was Edwin Newman of NBC News and a panel of three journalists asked the questions. Carter and Ford discussed unemployment, taxes, the federal budget and government spending, and the size and structure of the federal government. They talked about energy. They also covered the issue of whether to grant amnesty for Vietnam-era draft evaders or military deserters. Ford defended his pardon of President Richard Nixon in 1974,  and his use of the veto power. Carter called for new leadership and said that Ford’s only success was avoiding another Watergate scandal.
The instant post-debate reaction was that it was a draw. Ford highlighted his experience and mastery of policy detail. Carter aimed to be presidential, offer an alternative vision, and avoid mistakes. The headline of the Americus Times-Recorder the next day was “Both Sides Claim Debate Victory.”
Plains was rather quiet that night. In his Sept. 24 article, “How Sumter Countians Reacted to the Ford and Carter Debate,” Rudy Hayes, the managing editor of the Americus Times-Recorder, wrote, “Usually on special nights such as during the primaries earlier this year the one-time depot building now used as campaign headquarters would be filled with supporters watching proceedings on television. But it was not so on the debate night. Neither were there any large TV parties of watchers for most of the citizens preferred to watch the debates in the quietness of their own homes.” With the debate start time at 9:30 p.m., Plains “was turning into a pumpkin.”
Perhaps the most notable moment from the first debate was the 27-minute delay caused by audio trouble. During that time, the candidates remained at their podium. The delay occurred towards the end of the debate. At the time, Carter was beginning his remarks on the breakdown on trust between the American people and the government in Washington. When sound returned, the candidates gave their closing statements.
According to Gallup and Time magazine polls, President Ford was the perceived winner of the first debate. For example, the Time poll had Ford as the winner, 41 – 28 percent. From earlier polls, more survey respondents viewed Carter as “fuzzy on the issues” and that he “changes his stands” on the issues. Ford aimed to exploit these vulnerabilities.
The main criticism of Carter’s inaugural performance was that he came across as “nervous and uncertain” and appeared “too reticent” at times. He “seemed tense and a bit tentative”. His campaign manager, Hamilton Jordan, agreed. “I thought Jimmy was a little nervous at first and started a little slow.” However, as the debate progressed, Jordan believed that Carter recovered and “took command of the debate.”
The second debate was on Oct. 6 in San Francisco, California. The focus of the debate was on foreign policy and national security. Pauline Frederick of National Public Radio was the moderator. Like the first debate, a panel of three journalists provided the questions to the candidates.
Carter the challenger held his own against the incumbent. The two rivals covered a number of international issues: the containment of communism, the role of morality in foreign policy, support for Israel, diplomatic relations with Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, levels of defense spending, nuclear arms control, white minority rule in Rhodesia, status of the Panama Canal Zone, and the 1975 Mayaguez incident with Cambodia.
President Ford, however, made a major gaffe in the debate that halted his momentum in the polls. It may have cost him the election. Gerald Rafshoon, the communications director for the Carter campaign, declared, “We won the election that night.” Carter’s pollster, Pat Caddell, exclaimed that his candidate had “the thing won now”.
Max Frankel of the New York Times asked Ford a question on the Soviet Union. He asked the President if he thought the Soviets were expanding their influence in Europe and the Middle East. Ford emphatically said they were not. In fact, he even denied Soviet control over the Eastern Bloc countries. At the end of his remarks, he flatly stated, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
Stunned by the assertion that the Soviet Union did not dominate the countries of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, Frankel gave Ford the chance to clarify or correct his remarks. Frankel said, “I’m sorry, could I just follow — did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence and occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it’s a Communist zone …”
Ford dug in and defended his view. “I don’t believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous; it has its own territorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia, and Romania, to make certain that the people of those countries understood that the President of the United States and the people of the United States are dedicated to their independence, their autonomy, and their freedom.”
In his response, Carter said, “I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that those countries don’t live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain.”
In the days after the debate, Carter hammered away at Ford for his erroneous assessment of Eastern Europe. He called Ford’s words ridiculous, insensitive, and disgraceful. Ford’s “no Soviet domination” comment was labeled in the Oct. 18 issue of Time as “The Blooper Heard Round the World”.
Ford continued to insist that what he said was accurate. His advisors wanted him to admit that he misspoke so the campaign could move on, regroup, and go back on offense. Finally, on Oct. 12, in a White House meeting with leaders of Eastern European ancestry, Ford fully acknowledged his verbal mistake and fully walked back his initial evaluation of Eastern Europe. “Let me be blunt: I did not express myself clearly when this question came up in the debate … The original mistake was mine. I did not express myself clearly; I admit it.”
Polls showed Carter as the winner of the second debate. By a wide margin, a Newsweek poll, conducted Oct. 13-14, had Carter a 50 – 27 percent winner. The debate, however, should have belonged to the President. After all, he was the one with the foreign policy expertise and experience. That did not happen. Instead, Carter proved that he was more than capable of being the next president.
The third and final debate was on Oct. 22 and held at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Barbara Walters of ABC News was the moderator. For this debate, all issues were fair game for the three-person panel. Carter and Ford had questions on Watergate, Yugoslavia, the environment, urban development, civil rights, amending the Constitution, gun control, the Supreme Court, and unemployment.
Though the media never directly asked him about it in the first two debates, Carter received a question in the third debate on his controversial interview with Playboy magazine. The question came from Robert Maynard of the Washington Post. Carter took responsibility for some of the lower moments of the 1976 election. He admitted that the Playboy interview was not an appropriate forum for a presidential candidate.
“I’ve made some mistakes. And I think this is part of just being a human being. I have to say that my campaign has been an open one. And the Playboy thing has been of great, very great concern to me. I don’t know how to deal with it exactly. I agreed to give the interview to Playboy. Other people have done it who are notable – Governor Jerry Brown, Walter Cronkite, Albert Schweitzer, Mr. Ford’s own secretary of the treasury, Mr. [William] Simon, William Buckley – many other people. But they weren’t running for president, and in retrospect, from hindsight, I would not have given that interview … If I should ever decide in the future to discuss my – my deep Christian beliefs and condemnation and sinfulness, I’ll use another forum besides Playboy.”
The controversy over Carter’s Playboy interview first emerged on Sept.  21. The New York Times printed an article entitled, “Carter, on Morals, Talks with Candor”. Convinced by his younger staff, Carter agreed to do the interview as part of an effort to reach out to young voters and to secular voters concerned about his evangelical faith and high-level religious commitment. There were still many voters, including Democrats, who were uneasy with a presidential candidate who was religious and from the South.
Carter’s remarkably candid discussion of sin and of his own personal failings caused most of the media controversy. He admitted to his own sins. “I’m human and I’m tempted.”
Presidential debates do not typically determine who will win the presidential election. Usually, the candidate who led going into the debates continued to lead after the debates. That was true in 1976. Carter led before and after the debates. However, his lead over Ford fell by ten points. According to Gallup, Carter had a 15-point lead prior to the first debate with Ford. After the third debate, Carter was up by just five, 49 – 44.
Overall, Gallup showed Carter down two points, 51 to 49, from the first debate to the third debate. Despite his foreign policy gaffe on the Soviet Union and its position in Eastern Europe, President Ford still had a net gain of eight. While the debates seemingly tightened the race, they would not ultimately determine the election winner. The Nov. 2 election was going to be close.

D. Jason Berggren is an associate professor of political science at Georgia Southwestern State University.