Why did Jimmy Carter win the Presidential contest in 1976 and yet lose to Ronald Reagan only four years later?

Life is always busy at this time of year, and sadly the blog has taken a back seat in recent weeks. But in class we’ve had some great discussions recently, particularly on US politics. Here’s a model essay I wrote on the title question for Year 12, for those who are interested:

Jimmy Carter was only able to manage one term in the Oval Office because, for the most part, the reasons he won in 1976 were the same reasons why he lost in 1980. His election agenda was based on anti-government rhetoric, and although in line with public opinion, it made working with the Legislative Branch of government virtually impossible when in office, causing many to view Washington as having undergone no change in the four years of his presidency. He campaigned against Ford’s lack of clear vision, and yet was accused of the same by Reagan for years later. His first campaign benefited from an economic slowdown, but he was hurt by one in his attempts to get re-elected.

The political atmosphere of 1976 suited Carter well, and goes a long way in explaining his Presidential victory. His opponent, Ford, was seen as a “just another corrupt politician”, whose poor decisions, especially that to pardon Nixon, cost him dearly in the contest. Carter’s decision to campaign on an “anti-government” agenda, emphasising both the negative side of the last three years under the Republican Party and in Congress in general proved popular with American voters. He sold himself to the public as someone who was not a part of the corrupt nature of Washington, and his promises to end “pork-barrel” politics within Congress led to his portrayal as a man who could heal the wounds of Watergate.

However, Carter’s failure to deliver on these promises led many to see him as another President of the same line as his predecessors. The fact that even a Democratic Congress failed to work alongside Carter clearly demonstrates his inability to restore confidence in the position of President. His inability to heal the inherited problems, particularly the economic ones, caused voters to quickly lose faith in him. Events such as “Billygate” were not as damaging as Watergate for Carter, but did cause him to be linked to the corrupt politicians who had gone before. Like Ford, Carter’s mistakes during his time in office further alienated key voting demographs such as blue-collar workers, women, African Americans and the poor. By 1980, Reagan was able to campaign along the same lines, arguing that Carter had failed in delivering on his promises of four years later. Any President attempting re-election is judged by the successes of his first term in office, and this fact made Reagan’s job a much easier one- Carter’s failures dominated Reagan’s campaign, as he questioned Americans during the televised debates whether they were “any better off than you were four years ago?”

There are more striking similarities between the two campaigns, as history repeated itself again in 1980, this time where division within the ruling party cost them in the election. In 1976, Carter was given a head start by the in-fighting between Ford & Reagan, and by running as an independent candidate, Reagan hurt the Republican Party further. By contrast in 1980, the split between traditional and liberal Democrats hurt the party led to competition between Carter & Ted Kennedy, this time giving Reagan and the Republican Party an advantage.

The economy played a major role in deciding the outcome of both elections and goes some way in explaining why Carter only lasted one term. The problems facing America in 1976 were used wisely in Carter’s campaigns, as he promised to get the country back on its feet again. But as Carter was unable to fix the problems he inherited (as well as create some for his own), it was easy for Reagan to argue that Carter had failed. Because both elections saw economic downturn in the final days before voting, each incumbent President could be seen as the reason for high inflation and unemployment, affecting to some degree the outcome of both elections.

There were however, other reasons as to why Carter was elected in 1976 but not in 1980. Carter had made failures in his foreign policy ventures, culminating in the disastrous Iranian hostage situation. These failures caused many to turn to Reagan, who promised a show of strength against Communism. The religious right and their “anti-affirmative action” campaigns grew in stature as the 70s drew to a close, and Reagan’s self-effacing yet strong manner appealed to both them and the silent majority of Middle America, something that the seemingly ‘liberal’ Carter and his energy campaigns was not able to do. In 1976, changes to fundraising regulations affected the Republican Party’s ability to financially support their candidate in the ways they had been able to previously, but this was less of an issue by 1980. In Reagan, Carter faced a far more formidable opponent than in 1976, who appealed to not only Middle America, but key demographic groups too.

Ultimately, in both elections the actual winners were the non-voters, as both elections saw incredibly poor turnouts. A disillusioned electorate needed someone with drive, enthusiasm & personality to inspire them. In Carter, many Americans thought they had found that someone, but in truth, Carter was as ineffectual as his predecessor. Reagan was elected in 1980 for the same reasons that Carter became President in 1976- because the predecessor was ineffectual, and in searching for a return to prosperity, American voters were more open to change. In particular, his inability to negotiate with a Congress full of his own party members meant that Carter had no excuses for his failures, and when judged against the actions of his first term, was a poor choice in comparison to Regan in terms of both his policies and his personality.


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