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Potus Geeks Book Review: The Election of the Evangelical by Daniel K. Williams

In an act of humility, author Daniel K. Williams credits another author (Jules Witcover) for writing the best analysis of the 1976 Presidential Election, the closest presidential election since 1916 (up until Bush v. Gore). After reading Professor Williams' chronicle of the contest in The Election of the Evangelical: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and the Presidential Contest of 1976, it's hard to imagine that there could be a better post mortem of this remarkable chapter in Presidential election history.



This book is another in the American Presidential Election Series published by the University of Kansas Press. This volume is longer than the average, but still a very reasonable and readable length at 354 pages. Williams does an outstanding job of describing the historical and political setting in which this election took place. It was the post-Watergate era, when Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace, and Gerald Ford appeared to be an honest breath of fresh air in a stale White House, for a few months at least, until Ford's controversial pardon of his predecessor seemed to cost him whatever goodwill he might have had. After the Republicans were soundly thrashed in the 1974 mid-term elections and Ford trailed badly in the polls (by as much as 40% according to some surveys). Williams adeptly explains why the presidential election that should have been a cakewalk for the Democrats turned out to be anything but, with the candidates scored almost even in election day polls.

The author describes who the major contenders for the presidency were in the time leading up to the election, and why the expected front runners such as Ted Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey decided to sit this one out, why others like Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Birch Bayh failed to gain traction, and how a little known governor of a southern state gathered momentum to become the front runner for the Democratic nomination. It was a year of intra-party squabbling and schisms as both Republicans and Democrats attacked their own. As Carter won primaries by promoting himself as a Washington outsider, those in his own party turned their attack on him for being an insincere panderer who changed his message depending on his audience. Republicans also experienced a bitter nomination fight between conservatives supporting Ronald Reagan and moderates and liberals (yes, there once was such a thing as a liberal Republican) supporting Ford.

Williams gives a very thorough and intelligent description of these contest and of the strategies of all of the campaigns as well as their stumbles and gaffes. He provides an excellent description of the nominating process, the general election campaign, and the various voting demographics that the candidates courted, successfully or otherwise. He also examines the historical significance and impact of this election, and how its events shaped the state of modern politics.

One minor nit-picky criticism: unlike most books in this series, this one lacks the usual tables showing the primary and election results. But this is minor. The author deserves very high marks for his detail, his clear explanation of complex political issues and trends, and his objectivity in fairly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of both of the candidates. There is no adulation, hero worship or brand loyalty apparent in this scholarship. That's a remarkable feat for these times and Professor Williams deserves credit for his accomplishment in producing such an outstanding work.
Tags: book review, elections, gerald ford, hubert humphrey, jimmy carter, richard nixon, ronald reagan, ted kennedy
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