- Jimmy Carter, former Governor of Georgia
- Morris Udall, U.S. Representative from Arizona
- Jerry Brown, Governor of California
- George Wallace, Governor of Alabama
- Ellen McCormack, housewife from New York
- Frank Church, U.S. Senator from Idaho
- Henry M. Jackson, U.S. Senator from Washington
- Fred R. Harris, former U.S. Senator from Oklahoma
- Robert Byrd, U.S. Senator from West Virginia
- Milton Shapp, Governor of Pennsylvania
- Sargent Shriver, former U.S. Ambassador to France, from Maryland
- Birch Bayh, U.S. Senator from Indiana
- Lloyd Bentsen, U.S. Senator from Texas
- Terry Sanford, former Governor of North Carolina
- Walter Fauntroy, U.S. Delegate from Washington, D.C.
The surprise winner of the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination was Jimmy Carter, a former state senator and governor of Georgia. When the primaries began, Carter was little-known at the national level, and many political pundits regarded a number of better-known candidates, such as Senator Henry M. Jackson from Washington, Representative Morris Udall from Arizona, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, and California Governor Jerry Brown, as the favorites for the nomination. However, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Carter realized that his status as a Washington outsider, political centrist, and moderate reformer could give him an advantage over his better-known establishment rivals. Carter also took advantage of the record number of state primaries and caucuses in 1976 to eliminate his better-known rivals one-by-one.
Senator Jackson made a fateful decision not to compete in the early Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, which Jimmy Carter won after liberals split their votes among four other candidates. Though Jackson went on to win the Massachusetts and New York primaries, he was forced to quit the race on May 1 after losing the critical Pennsylvania primary to Carter by twelve percentage points. Carter then defeated Governor Wallace, his main conservative challenger, by a wide margin in the North Carolina primary, thus forcing Wallace to end his campaign. Representative Udall, a liberal, then became Carter's main challenger. He finished second to Carter in the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New York, Michigan, South Dakota, and Ohio primaries, and won the caucuses in his home state of Arizona, while running even with Carter in the New Mexico caucuses. However, the fact that Udall finished second to Carter in most of these races meant that Carter steadily accumulated more delegates for the nomination than he did.
As Carter closed in on the nomination, an "ABC" (Anybody But Carter) movement started among Northern and Western liberal Democrats who worried that Carter's Southern upbringing would make him too conservative for the Democratic Party. The leaders of the "ABC" movement – Idaho Senator Frank Church and California Governor Jerry Brown – both announced their candidacies for the Democratic nomination and defeated Carter in several late primaries. However, their campaigns started too late to prevent Carter from gathering the remaining delegates he needed to capture the nomination.
By June 1976, Carter had captured more than enough delegates to win the Democratic nomination. At the 1976 Democratic National Convention, Carter easily won the nomination on the first ballot; Udall finished in second place. Carter then chose Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, a liberal and political protégé of Hubert Humphrey, as his running mate.
First ballot vote for the presidential nomination by state delegations
The contest for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 1976 was between two serious candidates: incumbent president Gerald Ford from Michigan, a member of the party's moderate wing, and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, a member of the party's conservative wing. The presidential primary campaign between the two men was hard-fought and relatively even; by the start of the Republican Convention in August 1976, the race for the nomination was still too close to call. Ford defeated Reagan by a narrow margin on the first ballot at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, and chose Senator Bob Dole from Kansas as his running mate in place of incumbent Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, who had announced the previous year that he was not interested in being considered for the Vice Presidential nomination. The 1976 Republican Convention was the last political convention to open with the presidential nomination still being undecided until the actual balloting at the convention.
- Roger MacBride, who had gained fame in the 1972 election as a faithless elector, ran as the nominee of the Libertarian Party.
- Eugene McCarthy, a former Democratic Senator from Minnesota, ran as an independent candidate.
- Ben Bubar, Prohibition Party nominee.
- Frank Zeidler, former mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, ran as the nominee of Socialist Party USA, which was founded in a split with Socialist Party of America.
- Gus Hall, four-time Communist Party Candidate