The Election of the Evangelical
Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and the Presidential Contest of 1976
Daniel K. Williams
From where we stand now, the election of 1976 can look like an alternate reality: southern white evangelicals united with African Americans, northern Catholics, and Jews in support of a Democratic presidential candidate; the Republican candidate, a social moderate whose wife proudly proclaimed her support for Roe v. Wade, was able to win over Great Plains farmers as well as cultural liberals in Oregon, California, Connecticut, and New Jersey—even as he lost Ohio, Texas, and nearly the entire South. The Election of the Evangelical offers an unprecedented, behind-the-headlines analysis of this now almost unimaginable political moment, which proved to be a pivotal turning point in polarizing American political parties along ideological and cultural lines and eventually in destroying the winning coalition that Jimmy Carter created.
The big story immediately following the election was that a self-described evangelical Christian and improbably dark-horse candidate from the Deep South had won the presidency, leading Newsweek to call 1976 the “year of the evangelical.” What pundits overlooked at the time, and what Daniel K. Williams delves into in this book, was the profound effect of the election on the nations political parties. In the first comprehensive historical study of this consequential election, Williams mines untapped archival materials to uncover the strategies of the Ford, Carter, and Reagan campaigns and Republican and Democratic leaders in 1976. His work explains why, despite Ford’s and Carter’s efforts to the contrary, the 1976 presidential election reshaped the political parties along ideologically polarized lines. As he examines the role that religion and “values voting” played in 1976, Williams reveals why Carter was the last Democrat to hold together a New Deal–style coalition of white southern evangelicals, northern Catholics, and African Americans. His findings dispel the most common myths about why Ford lost the election and clarify what his defeat meant for the future of the Republican Party.
“To understand current US politics, look to the election of 1976. Thats the argument that Daniel K. Williams makes—quite convincingly—in this well-researched, engaging account of a crucial presidential race that often gets overlooked.”
—Matthew Pressman, assistant professor of journalism, Seton Hall University
“Here is the definitive ‘making of the president, 1976.’ Based on extensive archival research and written in clear, concise prose, this book explains why Jimmy Carter won the election and why the electoral map was never the same after.”
—Edward Berkowitz, author of Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies
“The presidential election of 1976 changed modern American politics in every conceivable way. Daniel Williams tells this important tale with prose that crackles and with the pace of a political thriller. Ford, Dole, Carter, and Mondale come alive for the reader, and the analysis of their decision-making offers a real contribution to the historiography of the presidency in the 1970s. This will remain the definitive study of the election of 1976 for some time to come.”
—John Robert Greene, author of I Like Ike: The Presidential Election of 1952
“Daniel Williams’s study of the 1976 presidential election goes well beyond previous scholarship. Whereas many scholars have written about ‘how Jimmy won,’ in this thorough and insightful book Williams argues that the election reflected and encouraged transformation of the Democratic and Republican parties, ironically not in directions favored by the two contenders who would turn out to be ‘the last of the moderates.’ Williams is convincing in his thesis that this was the last of the New Deal elections that divided along regional and class lines and foreshadowed elections to come in which parties divided according to values-based ideologies.”
— Marjorie J. Spruill, author of Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics
“In this well-written and well-researched account, Dan Williams finds the origins of our polarized politics in the presidential campaign of 1976. The Election of the Evangelicalshows not just how Americans put the first born-again Christian into the White House but also how our entire political system was reborn—from the new importance of presidential primaries and the new influence of pressure groups at both ends of the spectrum to the larger trend to ‘outsider’ politicians like Jimmy Carter.”
—Kevin M. Kruse, coauthor of Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974
“In this meticulously researched, sharply argued, and briskly written book, Dan Williams revisits the 1976 presidential election—a surprising, eventful contest that pioneered many of the features of modern presidential campaigns and anticipated the polarized cultural politics of the twenty-first century. With judicious insight, Williams reconstructs Jimmy Carter’s path to the White House and the enduring impact of his victory.”
—Bruce J. Schulman, William E. Huntington Professor of History, Boston UniversitySee fewer reviews...
An eye-opening account of electoral politics at an epochal crossroads, this book provides valuable historical perspective and critical insight in a time of seemingly ever-increasing partisan polarization in American political life.