AllPolitics - Debates '96

1976 Presidential Debates


The three presidential debates in 1976 marked the first time in 16 years that presidential candidates engaged in general election debates and the first time in which an incumbent president participated. (Presidents Johnson and Nixon both refused to share a platform with their opponents.) ( 384K QuickTime movie) It was also the first time the public observed a debate between vice-presidential candidates, Bob Dole (R) and Walter Mondale (D). ( 352K QuickTime movie)

The first debate was devoted to domestic policy, the second to international policy and the third was open to any topic. The debates broke from 1960 tradition by allowing the moderators to ask follow-up questions, and allowed candidate rebuttals and closing statements. Another first: The debates were broadcast from public places and before an audience instead of being conducted in television studios.

The first debate in Philadelphia was remembered for a 27-minute delay in which the sound on stage went dead. Neither candidate moved for fear he may be caught on camera in an unflattering pose. So for almost 30 minutes, the nation watched the two candidates standing mannequin-like at their podiums while the technical problems were fixed.

The second debate in San Francisco was devoted to international policy. Ford was expected to do well, but Carter appeared more confident and challenged the President on his international policy leadership, saying he surrendered it to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In what is referred to as the blooper heard 'round the world, Ford stumbled over a question about Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union after New York Times reporter Max Frankel asked him about Soviet domination of that area. (See Presidential Debate #2 overview for details).

Carter himself said later on: "If it hadn't been for the debates, I would have lost. They established me as competent on foreign and domestic affairs and gave the viewers reason to think that Jimmy Carter had something to offer."

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 1
Date: September 23, 1976
Location: Philadelphia
Site: Walnut Street Theater
Participants: Jimmy Carter (D), Gerald Ford (R)
Moderator: Edwin Newman, NBC
Frank Reynolds, ABC
Elizabeth Drew, New Yorker magazine
James Gannon, Wall Street Journal
Panelist questions, candidates have three minutes to respond; follow-up question from panelists, candidates have two minutes to respond. Three minutes for closing statements.


Carter talked of "the bureaucratic mess" in Washington, and the "lack of leadership," and Ford's "insensitivity" toward the unemployed. Carter also charged Ford, "except avoiding another Watergate, has not accomplished one single major program for this country" since taking office.

Ford said Carter lacked details and specifics in the majority of his responses and accused him of playing "a little fast and loose with the facts." Ford talked about getting jobs by "expanding the private sector ... reducing federal taxes ... and holding the lid on federal spending." Ford also said he intended to sign a tax reform bill passed by Congress but preferred "an additional tax cut and a further limitation on federal spending." Carter called the tax structure "a disgrace" and said it was "a welfare program for the rich ... The whole philosophy of the Republican Party, including my opponent's has been to pile on taxes for low-income people to take them off on the corporations."

Ford defended his pardon of President Nixon saying, "The reason the pardon was given was that, when I took office, this country was in a very divided condition ... It seemed to me that if I was to effectively handle the problem of high inflation, a growing recession, the involvement of the U.S. still in Vietnam that I had to give 100 percent of my time to those two major problems ... It seemed to me that Mr. Nixon had been penalized enough by his resignation in disgrace and the need and necessity for me to concentrate on the problems of the country fully justified the action that I took."

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 2

Date: October 6, 1976
Location: San Francisco
Site: Palace of Fine Arts Theater
Participants: Jimmy Carter (D), Gerald Ford (R)
Moderator: Pauline Frederick, National Public Radio
Richard Valeriani, NBC
Henry Trewhitt, Baltimore Sun
Max Frankel, New York Times
Panelists ask questions, candidates have three minutes to respond, follow-up from same questioner with candidates having two minutes to respond. Three minutes for closing statements.


The San Francisco debate was devoted to international policy. Ford was expected to do well in the second face-off against Carter. Carter launched an attack that the U.S. was not strong and not respected anymore, and had no leadership in international affairs. Carter claimed that, as far as international policy was concerned, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger "has been the president of this country."

Ford berated Carter again for speaking in "broad generalities" and charged him with advocating defense budget cuts. Ford also made what most observers considered to be an important blunder. In response to a question asked by Max Frankel of the New York Times concerning the Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." Frankel responded, "I'm sorry ... did I understand you to say, sir, that the Soviets are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there?" Ford responded, "I don't believe ... that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of these countries is independent, autonomous, it has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union."

In response Carter said he'd like to see Ford "convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that those countries don't live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain."

News reports about the debate were dominated by Ford's statement and its potential effect on the race. Most observers felt the debate proved to be a turning point and the key to Carter's narrow electoral victory. A post-debate Gallup poll on October 15 showed Carter six percentage points ahead of Ford, 48 percent to 42 percent.

P R E S I D E N T I A L  D E B A T E  # 1

Date: October 22, 1976
Location: Williamsburg, Virginia
Site: Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, College of William and Mary
Participants: Jimmy Carter (D), Gerald Ford (R)
Moderator: Barbara Walters, ABC
Joseph Kraft, syndicated columnist
Jack Nelson, Los Angeles Times
Robert Maynard, Washington Post
Alternating questions to candidates from panelists; candidate has two minutes for response, the other candidate has two minutes to comment on that response. Panelists have option of asking a follow-up question. Three minutes for closing statements.


Ford and Carter discussed a wide array of topics in their third and final presidential debate. The tone of the debate was described as "subdued, with only brief sorties into personal accusation ... each candidate spoke of a 'new spirit' in America."

Ford was grilled about his role in blocking a House probe of Watergate in 1972. He was asked about his handling of the Sen. George S. Brown incident, when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff delivered controversial opinions in several sensitive areas. Questions were also asked about his "rotten" economic and "hopeless" environmental records.

Carter was asked why the electorate seemed turned off, how he had lost his large poll lead and whether there was not "a serious question," in view of his largely Georgian staff, that he would bring "people with the necessary background" into a Carter administration.

Questions also covered the problems of the cities, minorities, gun control, the Supreme Court, and the issue of wholesale amendments to the Constitution.

When asked what sacrifices they would require of the public in view of the nation's awareness that times were difficult. Ford responded, "Those necessary sacrifices to preserve the peace ... an adequate military capability ... and a few billion dollars" more in defense funding." On the domestic side, sacrifices would be those that would "hold the lid on spending so that we could ... have a long overdue and totally justified tax decrease for the middle-income people."

Carter said, "the sacrifices would be much less" in a Carter Administration. "The major effort that we must put forward is to put our people back to work ... I think we could call together -- with strong leadership in the White House -- business, industry and labor, and say let's have voluntary price restraint; let's lay down some guidelines so we don't have continuing inflation."

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