American Elections and Campaigns – The 1970s: From Corruption to Stagnation

After a full four-year term, Nixon unanimously earned the Republican nomination for president in the 1972 election. His presidency was generally well-received for several reasons. In diplomacy, Nixon managed to open communications with the People’s Republic of China, and heralded the era of détente – a de-escalation of Cold War tensions – with the Soviet Union. On scientific grounds, the Nixon administration fulfilled Kennedy’s promise to increase space exploration, as the 1969 Apollo 11 mission successfully delivered three American astronauts to the Moon and back again. Responding to frequent national concerns over air and water pollution, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 by executive order, garnering support among more liberal elements of his constituency. With these accomplishments, Nixon and the Republican Party had a solid platform of political support and appeal in the 1972 season. The Democrats selected George McGovern for their presidential candidate, operating primarily with support from anti-war Democrats. Out of the many candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, Senate Majority Whip Ted Kennedy was the most popular, but his public announcement that he would not be running for president shifted to several different people. Maine Senator Ed Muskie proved to be a popular replacement for Ted Kennedy’s withdrawal, but the infamous “Canuck letter” – which was later revealed to be a forgery by the Nixon administration – undermined his public relations campaign among his fellow Democrats and prospective voters. Against mainstream opposition, McGovern managed to win the Democratic nomination through his nationwide grassroots campaigns. The most topical element of the 1972 election was the Watergate scandal and the subsequent political investigations that came about. In June 1972, the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters was hosted on the sixth floor of the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C. On the night of June 17, five men broke into the office building and infiltrated the DNC headquarters. Searching for potentially-compromising information about members of the Democratic Party, the five men looked for physical documents and attempted to plant wiretapping devices. All five men were arrested by the local authorities the following morning, and a subsequent investigation by the Department of Justice revealed that the money they had on them was directly tied to the Nixon re-election campaign. More expansive investigations followed, and attempts by the Nixon administration to cover-up their involvement resulted in the creation of the Senate Watergate Committee. The hearings by the new committee were long and extensive, and them being televised by the newly-created Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aroused public interest and scrutiny on the Nixon administration. In response to the voluminous findings from the congressional committee, three separate articles of impeachment were drafted against Nixon, regardless of his unanimous victory in the 1972 election. The impeachment articles lingered, but none of them were acted upon, as both Agnew and Nixon resigned from their positions in 1973 and 1974, respectively. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford was appointed to the positions of vice president and president through the Twenty-fifth Amendment, filling in the gaps left behind by Agnew and Nixon’s resignations.

President Richard Nixon preparing to deliver his resignation speech in 1974. (White House Photographic Office)
Panoramic photograph of members of the House Judiciary Committee who approved the articles of impeachment against President Nixon, 1974. (U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office)

As the 1970s continued, the national troubles that had defined the previous decade still lingered in the political and social thought of the United States. The 1976 presidential election cycle featured the incumbent Republican Gerald Ford being challenged by the Democratic Jimmy Carter. The Republican Party sustained heavy damage to its reputation due to the Watergate scandal, and Ford’s promise to lead as a moderate candidate alienated many of the conservatives in the party. Regardless, Ford managed to maintain enough support from his party, highlighting his years of experience in D.C. leadership. A more far reaching effect of Ford’s campaign was its inspiration on former Governor of California Ronald Reagan, who was narrowly defeated in the 1976 primaries and would later return to win the 1980 presidential election. For the Democrats, Carter was the surprise winner of the primaries. A former Senator and Governor of Georgia, Carter emphasized his years of experience in political leadership, while also clarifying that not being “tainted by D.C.” made him an ideal outsider to become the President. Some Democrats did not want Carter, largely out of concern that his southern origins would make the party at large more conservative. Regardless, both the Carter and Ford campaigns had solid support from their parties that remained consistent throughout the election season. Ford had the notable advantage of being the President during the United States Bicentennial. Held from April 1975 to Independence Day in 1976, the Bicentennial was a series of nationwide events and celebrations commemorating the 200th year anniversary of the United States becoming an independent nation. On a cultural level, the Bicentennial was treated by some as the first major step in reconciling the instability and misfortune that had taken place in the past several years. Throughout the celebrations, Ford consciously made sure to portray himself as a busy and attentive leader, harkening to his large-scale “Rose Garden strategy.” Meanwhile, Carter’s campaign primarily focused on him being a figure who was not touched by the recent bouts of corruption in Washington, D.C., most notably from the Watergate scandal. Although the Carter campaign achieved a substantial lead over Ford, a controversial interview in an issue of Playboy damaged support for his campaign from women and Christians. While the controversy against Carter remained pertinent for a while, Ford also faced criticism for his public assertion that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” and that there never would be “under a Ford administration.” The remark was given during the second presidential debate on October 6, and in spite of the criticism he received, Ford refused to retract what he said for a week. The vice-presidential debate between Bob Dole (Republican) and Walter Mondale (Democrat) received its own interval of controversy, as well. Dole asserted that the Democrats were to blame for every American war in the 20th century, justifying his claim by saying that a Democratic president was in office for each one from World War I to the recently-ended Vietnam War. Combined with his dispassionate claim that the casualties from the wars equaled the population of Detroit, Michigan many in the public felt that Dole was insensitive and cold in his remarks. Dole later expressed regret for his remarks, and confessed that it likely damaged the Republican campaign. In spite of this, the Ford campaign received a boost in support by his television appearances with Joe Garagiola Sr. A NBC Sports announcer and former baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals, he would interview Ford in an informal and relaxed show format. Ultimately, Carter and Mondale won the 1976 election with 297 electoral votes to Ford and Dole’s 240. Compared to previous election years, neither of the major political tickets secured a unanimous result, as both campaigns enjoyed relatively strong political support.

Campaign poster promoting the Carter-Mondale campaign, 1976. (Public Domain).
President Ford speaking at the official beginning of the United States Bicentennial celebrations at Concord, Massachusetts, 1975. (University of Massachusetts)
Official logo of the United States Bicentennial. (Public Domain)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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