The 1976 Election and the American Political System

DOI10.1111/j.1467-9248.1977.tb01176.x
Date01 June 1977
AuthorGraham K. Wilson,Philip Williams
Published date01 June 1977
Subject MatterArticle
THE
1976
ELECTION AND THE
AMERICAN POLITICAL SYSTEM
PHILIP WILLIAMS*
AND
GRAHAM
K.
WILSON7
Nufield
College,
Oxford;
t
University
of
&sex
Abstruct.
The elections, remembered
as
the first in which
an
incumbent President was
defeated since
1932,
show other characteristics inconsistent with
usual
interpretations.
The
Democratic Party’s selection procedure managed to produce a moderate around whom the
party could unite for the first time since
1964
while the Republicans experienced a damaging
fight which the more extreme candidate almost won. Analysis
of
the
results
refutes many
common conclusions. The popular vote was not as close
as
in other postwar elections;
regional variations
less
pronounced and party more important in the campaign than had
been
supposed.
The Republicans showed surprisingly strongly in the Presidential election,
but did disastrously again in others.
No
satisfactory theory explains the discrepancy.
Republicans still challenge strongly for the Presidency but consistently fail elsewhere.
I.
The
Context
THE American election of 1976 has shattered much conventional wisdom about
the current working of the political system. The surprises began in the primaries,
where the successful Democratic candidate broke several accepted rules, while
his success was matched only by the equally surprising failure of his Republican
rival. In the election campaign itself these roles were reversed, with President
Ford almost eroding his opponent’s huge lead-but ending as the first President
defeated since the great slump. But while the presidential contest was close, in
other elections the Republican Party fared appaltingly. The old discrepancy
between presidential and other elections thus appears starkly in 1976.
In spite
of
all the political upheavals and institutional reforms
of
the 1960s and
early 1970s, the campaign had a curiously traditional flavour. Two former
Governors, Carter and Reagan, had realistic hopes of the Presidency, after
a
spate of ex-vice-presidents and senators. Regional variations reappeared after
a period in which national trends and issues had seemed dominant. The party
Conventions, largely formalities since
1952,
looked significant again; for months
it seemed likely that the Democratic Convention would be dominated by the
party’s power brokers. The Democratic liberals,
so
important in 1968 and 1972,
were frustrated by an unknown whose position on many issues was equivocal.
The nomination of Governor Carter was surprising in several ways. The first
man from the Deep South nominated for the Presidency since 1848, he enjoyed
solid support from the black community, without whom he would have won
only 180 (perhaps only
133)
electoral votes. After twenty years
in
which no
governor had been a serious contender as a Democrat, and only one Republican
had been nominated even for vice-president, he was handicapped in the election
by the very uncertainty about
his
views which would once have been a governor’s
main asset. For it used
to
be
argued that senators made too many enemies by
their votes
on
contentious issues to be ‘available’-while governors’ views were
so
unknown that they were almost as ideally available as generals; but more
POW
s-
VOL
xxv,
NO.
s
(iaz-zoo)
PHILIP WILLIAMS
AND
GRAHAM
K.
WILSON
183
recently the senators and vice-presidents have benefited from the primacy
of
foreign policy, the importance of national television exposure, and the growing
tendency to vote about issues. Thirdly, Carter began his campaign as an outsider
exploiting the anti-Washington mood of the country, unrecognized by those
leading liberal media and establishment figures who are regarded by the extreme
right (and by themselves) as a kind of sinister (or benevolent) nominating college.
Lastly, Carter emerged through the primary route. Although this is now
normal, rather than exceptional, a deadlocked Democratic Convention had
seemed likely when that party abolished winner-take-all primaries after
1972;
other reforms, opening up caucuses as well as primaries, were assumed to favour
ideologically committed activists rather than centrist candidates such as Muskie
in
1972.
Lastly, then as in
1968,
Democrats who had fought bitterly in the
primaries would not unite behind the winner. But in
1976
they were eager to
return to power and resolved not to split again. Carter’s leading rival, Congress-
man Morris Udall of Arizona, quoted at the Convention a prayer supposedly
written for Democratic primaries: ‘Oh God, help
us
to choose words that are
sweet and gentle and tender-for tomorrow we may have to eat them’.
At this stage of the campaign the failure of President Ford was as marked as
his
opponent’s success. The advantages of an incumbent President should be
overwhelming in
a
primary: control of the machine, the opportunity to make
political news, and the dependence
of
his party upon his record.
But
the waning
Republican primary electorate is
a
narrow ideological rump, and Ford very
nearly became the first President to
lose
the nomination since
1884.
The context, of course, was the first resignation of a President and of
a
vice-
president, and the sensational ramifications
of
Watergate which discredited
Cabinet and White House officers and the country’s intelligence services. Before
and during Nixon’s Presidency, trust in government in the United States declined
precipitately. President Ford, though an honest man ideally suited to lay the
Watergate issue to rest, ensured that it would continue into the
1976
campaign
by
his
blanket pardon for Richard Nixon. In
1974
that produced an immediate
slump in Ford’s popularity and probably contributed to the Republican rout; in
1976,
many who voted against him gave it as their reason.
The President was also blamed for the state of the economy, since unemploy-
ment was running at
7.8
per cent on election day-much more for blacks
and young people-and tending to rise. Though its political impact is less in
the United States than in Britain, unemployment helped to bring back to the
Democrats union leaders and members who had defected in
1972,
such as the
construction workers, the ‘hard hat’ conservatives of the
1960s.
So
the Demo-
crats were well placed-but they had
a
well-known tendency to snatch defeat
from the jaws of victory by attacking each other rather than the Republicans.
2.
The
Nominating
Process: The
Democrats
The experience of
1972
suggested both that squabbles between potential
nominees could destroy the opposition party’s chance, and that the new partici-
patory system of delegate selection might benefit extremist candidates for the
nomination-who had the most committed supporters within the party voting
in primaries or attending caucuses, but the least appeal to uncommitted voters
outside it; victory in the primaries might thus lead straight
to
defeat at the polls.

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