1976 Carter VS. Ford


It is traditional for candidates to begin their advertising campaigns with biographical ads. These positive commercials frame their life stories in the best possible light, attempting to link their personal histories to their political goals. The focus on personality was especially important in the 1976 election, which took place less than two years after the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Many voters were cynical about their government, and character became a more significant factor than individual issues. Political historian Michael Barone said that “the 1976 election is probably unique in American history as one in which the focus of attention was not on the performance of the incumbent President but rather on the character of the challenger.” This five-minute biographical ad for Governor Jimmy Carter accomplishes a lot: it establishes Carter as a fresh-faced outsider with roots in small-town America and experience as a Naval officer, and as a peanut farmer who made working people rather than special interests his priority as Governor of Georgia. From its modest opening, with the candidate seen in a denim work shirt on a farm, to its uplifting ending, where Carter is shown immediately after a shot of Mount Rushmore, the ad creates an emotionally compelling case for Carter as the candidate who can create a “new era” in America.


Museum of the Moving Image
The Living Room Candidate
"Bio," Carter, 1976

(Upbeat background music)

MALE NARRATOR: 1976. Across our land a new beginning is under way, led by a man whose roots are founded in the American tradition.

(Acoustic folk music)



JIMMY CARTER: My folks have been farmers in Georgia for more than 200 years and we've been living around here for, oh, 150 years.

LILLIAN CARTER: We had to work every afternoon. He didn't, couldn't, didn't have a chance to run around. We didn't have a car phone, and he had to come home every afternoon and work, work real hard out in the field.

JIMMY CARTER: Everybody in the family loved each other. We had to work together. We didn't recognize hardships. We thought we were having a great life, and I think we probably were, and it was a tight-knit family life bound together with love.

LILLIAN CARTER: I never did, I never did spank him. He was - Jim, I never did spank. I might have given you a little licking in passing, but, I mean, a real whipping, I never gave him one. That was, I left that with his father.

JIMMY CARTER: Although I've had a good chance to get an education as an engineer and a scientist, nobody in my family before my generation ever had a chance to finish high school. We've always worked for a living. We know what it means to work.

MALE NARRATOR: And it was the working people, not the special interests, that Jimmy Carter represented as governor of the largest state east of the Mississippi. He gave them an administration responsive to their needs and proved that an efficient and well-managed government can be achieved.


MALE NARRATOR: Jimmy Carter's candidacy is truly of the people and for the people. He spent the last twenty-two months listening, discussing, sharing his concern.

ROSALYNN CARTER: People ask me every day, "How can you stand for your husband to be in politics, and everybody know everything you do?" And I just tell them that we were born and raised and still live in Plains, Georgia. It has a population of 683, and everybody has always known everything I did.

(group laughter)

And Jimmy has never had any hint of scandal in his personal or his public life. I really believe he can restore that honesty, integrity, openness, confidence in government that we so sorely need in our country today. I think he'll be a great President.

JIMMY CARTER: I have a vision of America, a vision that has grown and ripened as I've traveled and talked and listened and learned and gotten to know the people of this country.

(background music)

I see an America poised, not only at the beginning of a new century, but at the brink of a long, new era of more effective, and efficient, and sensitive and competent government. I see an America that has turned away from scandals and corruption. I see an American President who governs with vigor and with vision, and affirmative leadership, a President who is not isolated from our people, but a President who feels your pain and who shares your dreams. I see an America on the move again, united, its wounds healed, an America entering its third century, with confidence and competence and compassion, an America that lives up to the majesty of its Constitution and the simple decency of its people. This is my vision of America. I hope you share it, and I hope you will help me fight for it.

MALE NARRATOR: On November 2nd vote for Jimmy Carter.


"Bio," 1976 Democratic Presidential Campaign Committee, Inc., 1976

Maker: Gerald Rafshoon

From Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2012.
www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1976/bio (accessed July 18, 2024).


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1976 Carter Ford Results

On August 9, 1974, after a Senate investigation revealed his direct involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in, Richard Nixon became the first president in American history to resign from office. Nixon was succeeded by Gerald Ford, who had been appointed vice president after a bribery scandal forced Spiro Agnew’s resignation in October 1973. These scandals and the televised Watergate hearings, which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of 25 Nixon administration officials, shattered the public's trust in the government. In a 1974 poll, 43 percent of respondents said that they had "hardly any" faith in the executive branch. As a result, the 1976 election was dominated by issues of integrity and character. Hoping to put the Watergate affair to rest, President Ford unconditionally pardoned Nixon in September 1974, but the move hurt Ford’s political standing. Ford won the Republican nomination only after fighting off a strong challenge from Ronald Reagan.

The Democrats nominated Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, a former naval officer and peanut farmer. Carter, who promised, "I will never tell a lie to the American people," ran a brilliant campaign as an outsider, offering a fresh change from Washington politics as usual.

Jimmy Carter for president
Walter Mondale for vice president

"Leadership for a Change"

Jimmy Carter was campaigning to become the first president from the Deep South since 1849. His ads, created by Atlanta advertising executive Gerald Rafshoon, skillfully made use of his heritage. They portrayed him as honest, hardworking, untainted by Washington politics, and almost mythically connected to America’s agricultural past--a non-lawyer who knew the value of manual labor. His campaign is best summarized by the five-minute biographical spot that shows him in work clothes walking through a peanut field, and includes interviews with his colorful family.

Yet establishing a farming background was not enough to qualify a candidate for the presidency. As the campaign progressed, Carter was made to look more and more presidential. Having emphasized his southern roots in his early ads, Carter appeared in a series of spots, produced late in the campaign, in a formal indoor setting wearing a suit and tie.

Gerald Ford for president
Robert Dole for vice president

"He’s Making Us Proud Again"

As a candidate, President Ford was in the unenviable position of being the incumbent at a time when Americans had lost their faith in the presidency. Not surprisingly, Ford’s ads pictured him as a different kind of leader from Richard Nixon. They consistently portrayed him as a regular guy and a nonimperial president. Spots filmed inside the White House showed him dressed casually, with an open collar and no tie. They also claimed that Ford was responsible for turning the country around and leading it out of the Watergate nightmare.

With the Vietnam war over, inflation beginning to ease, and the country in its bicentennial year, the Ford campaign produced a series of ads showing a montage of happy Americans accompanied by an upbeat song featuring the lyrics, "I’m feeling good about America, I’m feeling good about me."

Largely because of his pardon of Nixon, Ford found himself trailing in the polls through much of the campaign. As a result, the Republicans ran ads that capitalized on voters' doubts about the relatively unknown Jimmy Carter. In one series of man-in-the-street ads filmed in Atlanta, the Georgia voters who were presumably most familiar with Carter criticized his record as governor. Carter would use the same technique during his 1980 campaign against former California Governor Ronald Reagan.

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