Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Jimmy Carter Election Campaign
Andrew Tarbox, Green Block

After Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974 to avoid impeachment after the infamous Watergate Scandal, an event that both destroyed his political career and created distrust of the American people with the national government, Vice President Gerald Ford became President. In a risky speech on September 8, 1974, only about a month after Nixon’s resignation, Ford pardoned Nixon’s actions by saying, “It is common knowledge that serious allegations and accusations hang like a sword over our former President’s head…as he tries to reshape his life, a great part of which was spent in the service of this country and by the mandate of its people.” Before Ford pardoned Nixon’s actions, his approval rating was 71%; however, not long after pardoning Nixon’s actions, his approval rating plummeted to 46%, resulting in a poor rapport with the American people leading into the 1976 election.

As a result, voters looked to a candidate who they could trust. Jimmy Carter, a member of a long family line of peanut farmers and the former governor of Georgia, insisted that he was just that candidate and portrayed himself as “a leader for a change.” In addition to portraying himself as a candidate who would provide change, his most important campaign strategy was his emphasis on integrity, honesty, and cooperation with the American people. For example, in a 1976 television advertisement, Carter said, “ we've seen walls built around Washington and we feel like we can’t quite get through to guarantee the people of this country a government that’s sensitive to our needs.” Furthermore, in speeches that Carter gave in New Hampshire, Mississippi, and Iowa he finished them with the same message of having a government that cooperatively works with the people and stated such promises in vague terms. For example he said, “I don’t want anything selfish out of the government. And I think I want the same thing you do. And that is to have our nation once again with a government as good and honest and decent and truthful and fair and competent and idealistic and compassionate, and as filled with love, as are the American people.”  

Jimmy Carter’s campaign theme of always being on the side of the American people whether it was promising to be sensitive to their needs or being truthful to them, as well as his speaking in vague terms proves aspects of Cicero’s campaign tips for his brother, Marcus, a candidate for consul in 64 BC. In writing to his brother about what will result in his election, Cicero told his brother, “There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favors, hope, and personal attachment…As for those who you have inspired with hope…you must make them believe that you will always be there to help them.” By entering the election during a period of national scandal, Jimmy Carter was able to depict a sense of hope in the American people. His campaign slogan, “a leader for a change,” implied that he would help put trust back into American politics. In his speeches, Carter lived his campaign slogan in such promises as having a “government that is sensitive to our needs.” In this statement, Carter not only continued depicting hope, but also showed personal attachment tot the American people by suggesting that their struggle for a personalized government is his struggle too. Furthermore, he used words such as “compassionate” and “love” in the context of the government’s relation to the people, further showing his promise of personal attachment. Carter also spoke in vague terms in his campaign, a suggestion that Cicero outlines as important to avoid making “specific pledges either to the Senate or the people.” Although Carter did not show how he would make a more truthful government, he said that it would be “compassionate” and “filled with love.” Such words, Cicero described, “assure the common people that you have always been on their side.” As a result of Carter’s honesty toward the people and his promise to be on their side, he led the polls by 34 points after both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. In contrast, while Gerald Ford’s campaign stressed the incumbent’s honesty, Ford’s pardon of Nixon’s actions in the Watergate scandal did not portray and honest candidate who would be on the peoples’ side. The margin by which Carter led after the conventions showed that his honesty toward the people was an effective strategy.

In addition to Carter proving Cicero’s campaign tips, Carter’s campaign used the technique of grassroots campaigning to portray its message to the American people. A group of volunteers form Carter’s home state of Georgia, called the “Peanut Brigade,” traveled across the country to campaign for Carter. At the beginning of the campaign, many Americans asked the question “Jimmy who?” because Jimmy Carter was relatively unknown on the national level. The “Peanut Brigade” helped Carter campaign across the United States, adding to the already large number of trips he made independently.

 Jimmy Carter’s promise for change, his promise to provide a government that listens to the needs of the American people and provides transparency, and his grassroots campaign group that brought awareness to his candidacy helped to create an effective campaign, resulting in Carter’s election. His promises to the people were especially effective at a time in which the national government was struck by scandal. Carter was further helped by the fact that his opponent, Gerald Ford, had low approval ratings as a result of his pardoning of Nixon’s actions during the Watergate scandal. Although this was the case, the overall effectiveness of Carter’s promises caused him to win the election by 37 Electoral College votes.

A Jimmy Carter television advertisement called “Washington” from 1976:


A member of the “Peanut Brigade” Grassroots campaign 

Agiesta, Jennifer. “Approval Highs and Lows.” The Washington Post. Last modified July 24, 2007. Accessed October 10, 2012.

Broder, David S. “Carter:Putting Love Back Into the Political Lexicon.” The Washington Post (Washington District of Columbia), January 18, 1976.

Carter, Jimmy. “Our Nation’s Past and Future.” Speech presented at The Democratic National Convention, New York City, NY. The American Presidency Project. Accessed October 10, 2012.

“Ford Pardons Nixon - September 8, 1974.” Youtube. Video file. Accessed October 10, 2012.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. “The Peanut Brigade and the 1976 Election Campaign.” Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. Accessed October 10, 2012.

Public Broadcasting Station. “The Election of 1976.” American Experience. Accessed October 10, 2012.

Stallings, Melissa. “Election of 1976.” In ABC-Cllio. Accessed October 10, 2012.

“’Washington’ Jimmy Carter 4President 1976 TV Ad.” Youtube. Video file. Accessed October 10, 2012.


  1. Interesting point about the Peanut Brigade. Was there any connection between them and Carter? Did they coordinate at all, or were they acting independently? It would make sense to me, if Carter informed them where to go and what he needed, but this may have diminished the energy of a grassroots campaign.

  2. Good connections to Cicero's campaign tips. It is interesting that Carter used so many of the ideas Cicero wrote about two thousand years before. Do you think that Carter was aware that by being vague, making lots of promises, and capitalizing on his weak opponent, he was following Cicero's advice?

  3. Nice job, Andrew. I'm glad you mentioned the Peanut Brigade because Abraham Lincoln's campaign also had a grassroots campaign called the "Wide Awakes." However, the Wide Awakes' goal was to energize the base of the Republican Party, young voters, and voters who were disgusted with the growing tension between the north and south. Their goal was not to get Lincoln's name known, like the goal of the Peanut Brigade.

  4. It seems to me that Jimmy Carter's strategy of vague talking points and claiming to be a Washington outsider foreshadow the normal campaigns today that ignore policy specifics and rather speak to ideals and grand notions of what the government should be. Do you think that Jimmy Carter's campaign was a very modern one in terms of message and image?

    1. Sam, I think you raise an important question about the strategies of campaigns both today and during the time of Jimmy Carter. It seems as though in modern times candidates are using vague generalities more than ever to portray a favorable image of themselves. For example, Barack Obama's promise for "change" was a slogan that suggested that he would reform George Bush's failed economic policies. Also, in the Massachusetts senate race, Scott Brown's slogan is also general stating that "he's for us." Given that many of his commercials are concerned about economic issues, Brown's creation of this slogan was probably in response to America's economic turmoil. Just like Jimmy Carter's campaign, the campaigns of Obama and Brown use(d) vague generalities in desperate times. Carter used vague generalities to respond to Watergate, while Obama and Brown use(d) vague generalities to respond to the failing economy. As a result, I think that many candidates use vague generalities nowadays to respond to the desperate times facing the nation; however, I don't know if one can contribute the use of vague generalities to just the modern times because throughout the course of history, many campaigns have used vague generalities in these times.