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  First Carter-Ford Debate
TitleFirst Carter-Ford Debate
Start Date/TimeSeptember 23, 1976 08:30pm
End Date/TimeSeptember 23, 1976 10:30pm
Last ModifiedChronicler - October 26, 2008 03:14pm
DescriptionJimmy Carter and Gerald Ford held three televised debates in 1976, the first series of general election presidential debates since 1960. President Ford agreed to the debates because he was lagging in the polls after the conventions. Carter's Playboy interview had taken place before the debate, and though the article did not run until the 11/1976 issue, excerpts released by the magazine had seriously damaged his campaign. The debate thus represented a means for Carter to "change the topic." In the debate, Carter tried to establish that the Ford administration was unresponsive to the people. Ford used more specifics in his answers that the problem was with Congress and not with him. Perhaps the most memorable part of the debate was a technical failure near the end that resulted in 28 minutes of silence between the candidates.

In the summer of 1976, the League of Women Voters began planning three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. ABC and NBC announced on 8/6/1976 that they would carry the debates; CBS held off on promising to carry the debates until some agreement on the equal time provision was reached [New York Times 8/7/1976]. A Gallup poll showed that voters desired a televised debate by a margin of 68-23% [NYT 8/8/1976]. CBS agreed to carry the debates on 8/19/1976 [NYT 8/20/1976]. Congress waived the "equal time" requirement, thus paving the way for the debates [NYT 8/23/1976]. A complication came on 8/27/1976, when the Federal Election Commission ruled that the League of Women Voters could not receive corporate money to pay for the event but had to raise the money elsewhere. The LWV ran ads in major newspapers to raise the $150,000 it needed [NYT 9/12/1976].

Immediately after the initial schedule was released by the sponsor, two third-party candidates (Eugene McCarthy and Lester Maddox) began legal action to stop them. McCarthy and Maddox maintained that the debates unfairly excluded them. The FCC had adjusted its interpretation of the "equal time" provision to state that media could air debates as long as they did not organize them or only air selected responses [New York Times 9/3/1976]. Two other third-party nominees, Thomas Anderson and Peter Camejo, joined in the effort to stop the debates on 9/8/1976, when the site was announced [NYT 9/9/1976]. The Federal District Court ruled on 9/18/1976 that the objections raised by the third-party candidates were not appealed correctly, paving the way for a two-candidate debate [NYT 9/18/1976].

In a step that would become common in later debates, Carter began to play the "lowering of expectations" before the debate took place. He told Charles Mohr of the New York Times [9/6/1976] that all he had to do in the first debate was to "tie" with Ford, which would actually translate to a victory. If he were able to "maintain an image throughout the debates that I am relatively knowledgeable, that I am a good manager and not a spendthrift ... [I will] overcome those major political handicaps in a debate regardless of who won or lost." He was especially concerned that he not look amateurish on foreign policy, which he believed to be his weakest area. [NYT 9/6/1976]

The debate was nearly canceled just five days before taking place. During a meeting on 9/18/1976, LWV staff outlined their regulations on how the networks would cover the event. Richard S. Salant, the President of CBS News, challenged the rule that the media could not air shots from the audience. At the end of the meeting, only PBS remained committed to covering the debate [NYT 9/19/1976]. The two campaigns worried that people in the audience would influence voters and distract from the candidates. The major networks agreed on 9/20 to carry the debate even with their reservations [NYT 9/21/1976].

Quick Facts
When: 9:30-11:30 p.m. (Eastern), 9/23/1976
Where: Walnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia.
Moderator: Edwin Newman (NBC). Panel: James P. Gannon (Wall Street Journal), Elizabeth Drew (New Yorker), Frank Reynolds (ABC News)
Audience size: 69,700,000 [Link]
Topic: Domestic policy

Transcript: [Link]

Format: No opening statements. Questions with 3-minute responses; one follow-up question per reporter with 2-minute responses. Two-minute rebuttals. Three minute closing statements.

Setting: The candidates stood behind half-cylinder podiums eight feet apart; the elliptical platform on the stage had a blue carpet. Viewers saw Carter on the left and Ford on the right.

Gov. Carter arrived first; he chatted with the reporters and then took his station. President Ford arrived next, shook hands with Gov. Carter, and assumed his station. Unlike later debates, the candidates did not thank the organizers of the debate before answering their first questions.

Frank Reynolds had the first question, asking Gov. Carter how he would go about reducing unemployment. Carter said that he wanted that to be his "top priority." He believed that reducing unemployment was the first step towards getting inflation under control and that "strong leadership in the White House," working with "business, agriculture, industry, [and] labor" would accomplish this. He wanted to "channel research and development funds into areas that will provide large numbers of jobs," work with underemployed construction firms to provide better inner city housing, and organize a "CCC-type program" to combat unemployment in inner cities. He also favored a program to use federal money to supplement the income of workers in critical industries. In his response, Ford noted that Carter gave no specifics to the question. He proposed a tax cut for taxpayers, a tax incentive for businesses opening in inner cities, and special work programs for young people.

In responding to a question on the federal budget and taxation policies, Ford said that he wanted Congress to pass a $28 billion tax cut: $21 billion for taxpayers and $7 billion for business. Earlier in the year, he had asked Congress for a $25 billion tax cut, which did not pass. Carter noted that since Nixon took office in 1969, businesses were paying a smaller share of the federal budget than before and that most of the changes Ford recommended only benefited the most wealthy Americans. He had proposed a package of aid to cities, welfare reform, and education with an unestimated price tag, but he said that he would be willing to scale the programs back if needed to achieve a balanced budget by 1981. He also wanted to re-organize the executive branch to eliminate "obsolete or obsolescent programs." As an example, he said that there were 20 different federal agencies making energy policy rather than one. He believed that the economic recovery that would take place in his administration would result in a federal surplus of $60 billion. Ford found that number unlikely but said that if it happened, taxes should be cut to give the money back to the people. He also pointed out that Carter's re-organization of the Georgia government resulted in a 25% increase in the number of state employees; in his two years as President, he had cut the number of federal employees by 11,000, including a cut of 10% of the White House staff.

The two candidates differed about the economy during the Ford administration. Ford stated that during his administration, inflation was half of what it was in 1974 and that more Americans were working than at any previous time in history. Carter noted that federal deficits were four times those of the Nixon years and the largest in the nation's history. With a 14% increase in the cost of living since 1974, many mothers had taken part time jobs to help pay for increased costs - rather than staying home with the children. In fact, the gross number of unemployed people had increased 50% under Ford, while wages adjusted for inflation were the lowest since 1968.

A question about fairness of the tax system was notable for the large proportion of verbal pauses both in the question and in the answers. Throughout the entire debate, the questioners and candidates used verbal pauses more than 21st century viewers expect. In this question and follow-up, 2% of the questioner's words were verbal pauses (ah and uh). Carter's response was 4% verbal pauses compared to 2.8% for Ford. Carter stated that 53% of all business tax deductions helped only the top 14% of the people. He did not want to eliminate all business deductions, but he did want to end provisions for establishing shell companies. He said that "the average American" was not able to take advantage of many exemptions and that "you can't hire a lobbyist out of unemployment compensation checks." Ford pointed out that Carter had said in an interview before the debate that he planned to raise taxes on people earning over $14,000 per year (the upper half of taxpayers). Ford indicated that his economic policies had removed the tax liability from the 10 million poorest taxpayers and that he wanted to provide a tax cut to families earning under $30,000. He also pointed out that the most wealthy people were facing ever-higher minimum tax payments under his administration.

Reynolds asked Ford to explain the difference between pardoning Nixon and pardoning Vietnam era draft dodgers. Ford stated that he had granted amnesty to 14,000 draft dodgers through a program that he had initiated. Regarding Nixon, Ford said that at the beginning of his presidency, he had major challenges that warranted immediate action and that he had to get past Watergate so he could move ahead on the other issues. Carter advocated a pardon for all draft dodgers rather than amnesty (which suggested wrongdoing). He believed that Nixon represented the white collar criminals that were holding America back and making the crime system unfair.

On energy policy, Ford favored nuclear power while Carter believed other forms of power should be explored first. Carter had been a nuclear engineer as a graduate student and had some knowledge about it. He believed that at the rates of extraction of 1976, the world would run out of petroleum around 2010. He favored action on clean coal technology and solar energy. While he would not end nuclear energy, he wanted stronger safeguards such as having reactor cores below ground level and additional safety staff. Ford pointed out that his administration had increased spending on solar energy development by 50% and that new, safer nuclear power technology meant that it was safer than in the past.

In responding to a question about both Carter and Ford running "against" Washington, Ford stated that the difference was that he was running against Congress. He believed that the nation was much stronger with a divided government than it would be if the Democrats controlled the White House and Congress. Carter believed that the problem was a lack of leadership in the White House. He said that "Ford quite often puts forward a program just as a public relations stunt." While over 60% of the proposed legislation of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations were passed by opposition-controlled Congresses, just 26% of Ford's proposed programs had passed.

Carter and Ford had generally similar responses to a question about the Federal Reserve Board. Carter believed that the chairman should serve coterminous terms with the President and should have somewhat compatible views. Ford defended Arthur Burns for his sound monetary policy and wanted the FRB to maintain its independence from executive meddling.

The most memorable part of the debate came when a small piece of technology called an electrolytic capacitor failed, cutting off the audio feed. The purpose of the small device (previously known as a "condensor") was to muffle the sound of the video equipment. Gov. Carter was speaking on the "breakdown in the trust among our people" when Newman interrupted him to point out that the audio feed had been lost. Both candidates smiled at this news, with only ten minutes left in the allotted debate time. The two candidates stood silently at their stations on the stage for 27 minutes while technicians tried to correct the problem; network reporters used the time to discuss what the technical problem might be and what the candidates had said [NYT 9/24-25/1976].

Once the audio had been re-established, Carter gave a brief summary of what he had been saying and then gave his closing statement. He outlined his view of the problem with the Ford administration, He said "we've suffered because we haven't had leadership in this administration. We've got a government of stalemate. We've lost the vision of what our country can and ought to be. This is not the America ... that we have to have in the future." He wanted to replace the government of division with "a time for unity. It's a time to draw ourselves together: to have a president and a Congress that can work together with mutual respect for a change, cooperating for a change." Near his conclusion, he said "We need a president who ... derives his strength from the people. I owe the special interests nothing. I owe everything to you, the people of this country... I believe that we can work together. And I believe that if we can tap the tremendous untapped reservoir of innate strength in this country, that we can once again have a government as good as our people..."

Ford gave his closing statement after Carter. He began with two criticisms of Gov. Carter. "One of the major issues in this campaign is trust. A president should never promise more than he can deliver and a president should always deliver everything that he's promised." Ford's second criticism was that Carter supported the higher spending sought by the Democratic Congress to stimulate the economy. Instead of offering "more of the same" that Congress sought, Ford wanted to turn a new leaf. He referred to the bicentennial celebrations earlier that year and declared the next century "the century of individual freedom" in which Americans would be more than "a small cog in a big machine." He concluded with "I believe we can all work together to make the individuals in the future have more and all of us working together can build a better America."


Political analysts immediately called the debate a draw. Ford appeared to have a better command of the details and gave shorter answers to questions. Carter appeared "presidential," though his longer and sometimes unfocused answers kept Ford's earlier charge of Carter's "fuzziness" alive. Carter's reticence to attack the President too harshly helped his image [NYT 9/25/1976].

Polling organizations went into action quickly to gauge the public's reaction to the debate. Roper began calling voters halfway through the debate, and AP began calling as soon as the debate ended. Both "instant polls" showed a slight victory for President Ford (AP showed Ford 34-32%, Roper showed Ford by 39-31%) [NYT 9/25/1976]. A Gallup poll the following day showed that Ford had won by a 38-25% margin [NYT 9/26/1976]. A New York Times/CBS News poll the next day showed that voters perceived Ford to have won by a 37-24% margin and that as a result, Ford had cut Carter's overall lead in the polls in half. The poll showed that voters' earlier preferences colored how they viewed the result; Ford supporters believed he won by a margin of 66-6%, while Carter supporters believed that he won by a margin of 40-14%. Undecided voters believed Ford won by a margin of 38-15%. Large numbers of voters in all three categories saw the debate as a tie [NYT 9/27/1976].

Debates of 1976: 2d [Link] - 3d [Link] - VP [Link]

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