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Publication: Conservative Review
Ghosts of 1976 in Todays Campaign

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                   July 22, 2008

Ghosts of 1976 in Today's Campaign
by Michael Barone

Looking back over the last 40 years, the presidential 
campaign that most closely resembles this year's is the 
contest between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976. 
The Republicans were the incumbent presidential party 
that year, as they are now, but the Democrats had a big 
advantage in party identification -- on the order of 49 
percent to 26 percent then, far more than today.

The Republican president who had been elected and re-
elected in the last two campaigns, Richard Nixon, had 
dismal favorability ratings, far lower than George W. 
Bush's. His name could scarcely be mentioned at the Re-
publican National Convention. The Democratic nominee was 
a little-known outsider, with an appeal that was based 
on the idea that he could transcend the nation's racial 
divisions. Jimmy Carter, a governor from the Deep South, 
had placed a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the 
state Capitol in Atlanta.

Ford's political situation then was far more parlous 
than McCain's today. An early summer Gallup poll showed 
him trailing Carter by 62 percent to 29 percent. He had 
barely limped through the primary contests against Ronald 
Reagan, who continued his campaign up through the mid-
August national convention. His political ads had been 
disastrous, and on Aug. 1 he did not have a general elect-
ion media team in place.

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Yet by November, the race was about even. Ford ended up 
losing by just 50 percent to 48 percent. A switch of 5,559 
votes in Ohio and 3,687 in Hawaii -- 9,247 votes out of 81 
million -- would have made Ford president for four more 

How this came about is an interesting story, and one of 
obvious relevance to the McCain campaign this year. Much 
of it is told in a book two copies of which are currently 
available new and used on amazon.com, "We Almost Made It," 
by Malcolm MacDougall -- a professional advertising man, 
still active, who had played no significant role in pres-
idential campaigns before 1976 and has not done so since.

MacDougall was brought into the Ford campaign on Aug. 7 (!) 
by Douglas Bailey and the late John Deardourff, whose po-
litical advertising firm then worked mostly for liberal 
Republicans. Bailey Deardourff produced the national adver-
tising, while MacDougall, headquartered in New York, prepar-
ed the dozens of ads aimed at specific states and regions, 
all under the supervision of a former under secretary of 
commerce from Texas named James A. Baker III. They almost 
pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of 
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How did they do it? First, by filling in the blanks on 
Gerald Ford. Voters knew that he had pardoned Richard Nixon 
and that he tended to bump his head when exiting airplanes. 
The Ford ad team told them more -- how he had grown up in 
Middle America, played football for the University of Mich-
igan (the name of the team was omitted in ads aired in Ohio) 
and served in the military in World War II. There's an 
assumption this year that voters know John McCain pretty 
well. But my sense is that there is still a lot of filling 
in the blanks that the McCain campaign can do.

Second, they filled in the blanks on Jimmy Carter. Most 
voters wanted to support a Democrat, and one who had 
smoothed over the nation's racial divisions -- as they do 
today. The press up through early summer was giving him 
mostly adulatory coverage. But voters didn't know much about 
Carter. He made, as most candidates do -- and as Obama seems 
to be doing now -- some mistakes along the way.

The Ford ad team honed in on his record, with man-on-the-
street ads, some filmed on the streets of Atlanta. It was
risky, going against the grain of public opinion. But the 
Ford campaign persisted, and it worked. The McCain campaign 
needs to take the same risk and to persist in the face of 
media disapproval.

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Finally, the Ford campaign altered the mood of the nation. 
Voters then, as now, thought the nation was off on the 
wrong track. The Ford campaign, with a catchy song, "I'm 
Feeling Good About America," and upbeat ads starting off 
with shots of Air Force One, argued that their candidate 
was leading the nation around the corner, making Americans 
feel proud again. The McCain campaign needs to do something 
similar, to argue that their candidate can help the nation 
turn the corner and lead us into better times.

Exactly how they can do this I'm not sure. They might give 
Doug Bailey, Mal MacDougall or Jim Baker a call.

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