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The state of the union in 1976 was, to say the least, poor. Following Richard Nixon's mesmerizing landslide re-election in 1972, times seemed good for the ruling Republicans, a fact that was alas, not to be. Following the shocking revelations in the aftermath of Watergate, President Nixon resigned, leading to the sudden ascension of Vice President Gerald Ford to the Presidency. This fact, coupled with a souring economy saw Republicans suffer heavily in the 1974 midterms, a fate not made any better by the disastrous exit of the U.S Military from South Vietnam. The stage was soon set for candidacy.
The Republican Nomination:
Gerald Ford announced his intention to seek a full term in 1975, in the hopes of reviving the GOP's sinking prospects. However, Ford faced difficulties in this task. Having not been elected president, he was without a firm base of support and still remained unpopular amongst the public. Furthermore, he had been criticized by his party's conservative faction, who saw his failure to assist South Vietnam, his signing of the Helsinki Accords and his negotiations to relinquish control of the Panama Canal as something that did not mesh with their values.
With their grievances clear, conservatives within the Republican Party did not need to search extensively for their heroine as speculation soon focused on one man. This was of course Ronald Reagan. The former Hollywood actor brought a variety of accomplishments to the table, he had served two terms as governor of California, the most populous state in the union establishing a reputation as a staunch conservative, his history of heading unions made him appealing to many in the industrial Mid-West and his record as a hard-line anti-communist proved to be attractive for the GOP's base. However, Reagan was not without his detractors, his right-wing views were seen by many as too far from the mainstream with statements against the Civil Rights Act and in favour of the expansion of the war in Vietnam being taken as extreme. Nonetheless it was Reagan, who in fall 1975, declared his intention to challenge President Ford for the Republican Nomination.
The early primary contests produced surprising results, with Ford edging Reagan in New Hampshire. Following this upset, he continued to make a Reagan nomination unlikely, scoring victories in the Florida and Illinois Primaries. However, the campaign had not truly began until North Carolina, where with the help of arch-conservative Jesse Helms, Reagan staged his much needed comeback win, followed by a string of astonishing back-and-forth victories that brought the delegate count to almost even. The decision for who the nominee would be now passed on to the convention.It was at the convention that the course of a nation was changed, following a series of discussions with staff, Reagan reportedly dropped plans to announce that he would select a moderate as his running mate in exchange for the support of many more liberal republican delegates. After a series of disputes and the securing of several state delegations Reagan managed to wrestle the nomination away from Gerald Ford, becoming the first person to do take the nomination from an incumbent president since James Buchanan in 1856. It was Ford himself, who received warm thanks from Republicans, after graciously shaking Reagan's hand and offering his endorsement. After a brief search, Senator Richard Schweicker of Pennsylvania was tapped for Vice President.
In his acceptance speech, Reagan evoked passions amongst conservatives with his famous quotation:
"Tonight -- Tonight, let us dedicate ourselves to renewing the American compact. I ask you not simply to "trust me," but to trust your values -- our values -- and to hold me responsible for living up to them. I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries; the spirit that burned with zeal in the hearts of millions of immigrants from every corner of the earth who came here in search of freedom.
Some say that spirit no longer exists. But I've seen it. I've felt it -- all across this land; in the big cities, the small towns and in rural America. It's still there ready to blaze into life if you and I are willing to do what has to be done"
-Ronald Reagan upon accepting the Republican Party's Presidential Nomination
With his message steady and clear Reagan prepared for the coming general election.
The Democratic Nomination:
In the aftermath of Richard Nixon's resignation and the shocking fallout that followed, the Democratic Party had seen its chances of recapturing the White House grow tremendously. The early front runners for the nomination were widely known, consisting of California Governor Jerry Brown, a young and dynamic favorite who had been elected in 1974, Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, a hawkish foreign policy expert who was widely seen as "tough" on a number of defence related issues and Alabama Governor George Wallace, a controversial former segregationalist who had narrowly survived an attempt on his life during the last presidential election. Also running was a variety of familiar faces, including Senator Frank church of Idaho, Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, Governor Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania, Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Sargent Shriver, George McGovern's replacement running mate from 1972 among others.
In the end however, it was the relative unknown of Jimmy Carter whose "Outsider" appeal would shock pundits and allow him to triumph over his better known rivals. The Georgia Governor's early victories in both the Iowa caucases and the New Hampshire primary catapulted Carter into political stardom allowing him to score major triumphs in larger states, eliminating prospective rivals one after the other. By June 1976, he had amassed enough delegates to secure the Democratic Nomination before the convention where he chose Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota as his running mate.Carter's acceptance speech was well received, with his frequent mentions of the plight of the American People striking a cord amongst millions of viewers nationwide.
"Any system of economics is bankrupt if it sees either value or virtue in unemployment."
-Jimmy Carter in his 1976 acceptance speech
The General Election:
As fall came upon the nation, the battle between Republicans and Democrats intensified. In the polls however, the race appeared quite lopsided, with the Carter/Mondale ticket leading Reagan/Schweicker by a startling twelve points nationally. It was this significant Democratic lead that was mainly attributed with widespread anger directed at the Republican Party, who carried the baggage of eight years of incumbency, the stain of the Watergate Scandal and the effects of a mediocre economy all of which produced a downtrodden attitude towards America's confidence.Carter's appeal as an unknown helped him to present himself as someone worthy of trust, while at the same time his campaign continually painted Reagan as an extreme far-rightist who held only the interests of the wealthy at heart. Democratic attack adds cited Reagan's opposition to The Civil Rights Act and Social Security among other issues. In the first debate Reagan struck back at Carter condemning his "tax and spend initiatives" as well as vagueness on a variety of issues. Polls showed Reagan was thought to have decisively won the debate and that Carter was thought to have seemed ill-prepared.
As the race progressed, Carter's impressive lead began to diminish, as Reagan stepped up campaigning in the rust-belt, where his support from unions aided his surge in the polls. Reagan continually condemned Carter's lack of experience and called for increased drilling to solve America's growing energy problems (a fact that narrowed the race significantly in the state of Texas). In the second debate, Carter made a much stronger showing, with the two candidates arguing to an approximate tie an encouraging sign for Democrats that was followed by Mondale's modest victory over Schweiker in the Vice Presidential debate.By mid-October, polls showed Carter holding on to a modest low-single digit lead over Reagan. The Georgian's hopes however, were damaged in a surprising gaffe in which he stated that if elected he would compromise to make some concessions to the Soviet Union in exchange for further diplomacy. The Reagan campaign responded with hounding criticism of Carter, denouncing him as "weak on foreign policy and unable to engage the Communist threat from a position of strength".
The final debate between both candidates was rather inconclusive with no real break-throughs made by either campaign. Polling on the eve of election day confirmed that the once "decided" contest had become dead-even.
On November 2, Americans went to the polls in increasingly large numbers, with both candidates returning to their home states. Carter claimed to be "fully confident of victory" while Reagan stated he was ready as he would ever be for the election results.
That evening, as broadcasters began special coverage, results slowly streamed in. The North East was projected to be split, with Carter carrying Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine (narrowly) and New York, while Reagan nabbed wins in New Hampshire and the Republican stronghold of Vermont. Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey remained too close to call. In the capitol region, Carter carried Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia as well as Washington D.C. Carter solidly won the South carrying every former Confederate State east of the Mississippi except Virginia, where Reagan pulled out a narrow victory. In the Mid-West most states remained toss-ups with Reagan maintaining narrow leads in all states except Mondale's home of Minnesota while easily winning in Republican Indiana.
By 8:30 PM EST Carter was seen to be winning decisively, leading Reagan 175-32 in the electoral college.
As projections began to come in from the West, the electoral picture began to change. Carter scored wins in the Southern states of Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the border state of Missouri, while also gaining a win in Minnesota. Reagan swept the Great Plains states, the Mountain states, most of the South West as well as the West Coast, winning Oregon narrowly. The Lone Star state remained a toss up with Texas' oil favouring electorate coming out for Reagan in a normally Democratic state.
By 9:30 PM EST the electoral count had been altered with Carter leading by a more narrow 213-162 in the electoral college.
The final outcome of the race was decided in both the Mid-West and Texas. After 10:00 PM, Reagan slowly emerged as the winner in Ohio, soon followed by a win in Iowa, as well as Michigan, bringing Reagan into the lead with 216 electoral votes. Carter however, was immediately buoyed by wins in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, allowing him to edge closer to the finish line.
The electoral vote count soon moved back to a Carter lead of 260-216, leaving him 13 electoral votes away from the White House.
Later poll closings soon moved the states of Alaska into the Reagan column and Hawaii into Carter's. Soon after 1:00 AM EST breaking news was projected with Reagan pulling out an incredibly narrow victory in the must win state of Texas, bringing the electoral count to a Carter lead of 264-242. The race now rested on the shoulders of the states of Illinois and Wisconsin.By 1:45 AM EST Reagan had claimed Wisconsin, followed by the narrowest of wins in Illinois. Reagan officially passed the 270 electoral vote mark needed to be elected President winning the election with an electoral college victory of 274-264.
Carter soon gave his concession speech in which he congratulated Reagan for his victory and wished him well.
Reagan gave an ecstatic victory speech, in which he famously proclaimed a "new day" in America and announced the beginning of a transition to smaller government.