Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford: a lesson in how political rivals can be friends

By Dan Cravens

The election of 1976 was a pivotal one.  During the past four years, America had just lost the Vietnam War, President Nixon had resigned over the Watergate Scandal, former Vice President Spiro Agnew had been convicted of tax evasion, and the economy was doing poorly.

The circumstances were daunting for Republican President Gerald Ford.  During the 1972 election Ford was not on the ballot for either president or vice president.  He was instead serving minority leader in the U.S. House.  Ford was nominated to become vice president, by the then embattled President Nixon, to replace Spiro Agnew.  Upon Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 9th, 1974, Ford became president.

Ford in 1976 sought to be elected to the presidency in his own right.  However, he faced an uphill task. 

The first challenge he faced was within the Republican Party.  The conservative wing of the party supported Ronald Reagan.  Reagan waged a strong campaign against Ford, and came close to defeating him from the Republican nomination.

Ford’s next challenge was an unlikely one, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.  Carter at the start of the presidential campaign season was relatively unknown.  A common political joke during the 1976 campaign was people referring to Carter as “Jimmy who?”  His name recognition among Democratic voters at the start of his campaign was at 2 percent according to polling data at the time.

Carter soon proved to be effective campaigner.  He worked hard. Shared his vision of government in a book he authored, “Why Not the Best?” Carter’s efforts paid dividends, he won the Iowa caucus, and won several Southern primaries, after it was clear that George Wallace was not a viable candidate for President.

Carter won the Democratic nomination beating Gov. Wallace, Gov. Jerry Brown, Idaho’s Sen. Frank Church, Rep. Mo Udall, and Sen. Scoop Jackson. However, the 1976 general election would prove a more difficult test of his ability as a presidential candidate.

The 1976 election was a closely contested one. Ford, after receiving his party’s nomination, trailed Carter badly in the polls.  However, after the presidential debates, Ford began to regain ground on Carter. 

But on election night, Carter was able to garner 297 electoral votes, just 27 more than the 270 needed for election. The popular vote was close as well. Carter garnered 50 percent of the popular vote, to Ford’s 48 percent. The election was so close that a switch of 3,687 votes in Hawaii and 5,559 votes in Ohio would have tipped the election to Ford. 

Many political scientists feel that if the election had been a week later, Ford’s momentum would have pushed his campaign forward and he would have beat Carter.

Ford was gracious in defeat, as was Carter in victory.  Ford offered his help to Carter in the transition of power.  Carter accepted Ford’s offer.  Carter for his part during his inaugural address, did a rare thing, he praised his opponent Ford. Carter said, “For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.”

During Carter’s presidency, Ford got regular briefs on foreign and domestic policy issues. Ford’s advice was sought and freely given, even during the 1980 presidential campaign when he campaigned against Carter, and considered a possible running mate for Ronald Reagan.

Ford and Carter were political rivals, and both men were openly critical of each other’s policies. But that criticism was not personal, and they remained close friends.

Even at the local level, elections and campaigns can create hard feelings, and division. There is a lesson candidates and office-holders can learn from Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. One can campaign hard, and disagree with your opponent, but without personal animosity.

Perhaps the conduct of Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford toward each other can be an example to candidates in the 2016 election.

Dan Cravens lives in Blackfoot, with wife Jill, and family.  He holds a law degree from Gonzaga University, a Master of Arts in Government from Regent University, and is a candidate for Doctor of Business Administration degree from Argosy University – Salt Lake City, and served as the Bingham County Republican Central Committee Chairman.