With his pardon of President Richard Nixon, a weak economy, and a population fed up with Washington after Watergate, President Gerald Ford had an uphill battle in his 1976 bid for a second term. Making a major gaffe in a nationally televised debate didn't help.
The Republican Ford had been gaining in the polls against his Democratic opponent, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. Both Ford and his advisers believed that a series of televised debates would help close the gap. Ford's stumble came in the second one, broadcast live from San Francisco on Oct. 6, 1976. A reporter asked Ford about the United States' relationship with the Soviet Union, a timely question during the Cold War. Ford's lengthy response concluded with a statement that "there is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration."
In the following days, he and his staff said that the president simply meant that the United States would never recognize Soviet control of eastern Europe. But many voters came away questioning Ford's understanding of world affairs. "It wasn't just the press focusing on it. It was tens of millions of people watching the debate," says Alexander Lamis, an associate professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University. "Something that goes against common understanding is going to immediately be thought of as odd." While he believes the Nixon pardon had more to do with Carter's ultimate victory, Lamis says, "You never know what can turn a close election."