Every obituary I read for the late President Ford says that he lost re-election because he pardoned Nixon. They are wrong.
The accepted narrative is that Ford entered office with high (70%) approval rating but after he pardoned Nixon, the country never forgave him. Certainly the pardon did anger liberals who wanted nothing more from life than to see Nixon convicted. The frenzy a year ago over speculation that key Bush figures would be arrested and "frogmarched" over the Plame leak is nothing compared to Nixon hatred. The left never forgave Ford for depriving them of their moment and this shows in the obituaries.
But Ford was right. It would have been destructive to continue Watergate for months or years longer while a trial dragged on. Most of the country forgave Ford for the pardon and would have elected him had things worked out differently.
By "things" I mean the economy. The US economy in the 1970s was terrible. Nixon tried wage/price controls and tax rebates but it didn't work.
Ford came to office with stagnant economy and high inflation which was shortened to "stagflation". His main way of fighting it was to veto bills he deemed inflationary. He vetoed more bills than any other president, ever. He also came up with a program known as WIN for Whip Inflation Now. Thousands of WIN buttons were stamped but no one wore them. No one believed in WIN and it faded away without a trace.
Economic problems affected New York City and Cleveland, both of which flirted with bankruptcy. This drove home how bad the economy was.
It is a general rule of thumb that incumbents running during a bad economy lose. I have yet to see this mentioned but he was running on a platform of letting things alone and Carter promised economic changes. Had the economy been in good shape, Ford would likely have won.
Ford had other problems. I mentioned the number of bills he vetoed. This was symptomatic of his relationship with Congress. Despite decades in the House, Ford could not get along with Congress. He vetoed their legislation, they ignored his.
One of the things that Congress did during this period was cut off aid to South Viet Nam. Not long after we cut them off the North launched a renewed offensive and overran the south. This tainted the Ford presidency.
Ford also eased relations with the USSR. While Nixon could be forgiven for going to China, the right did not forgive Ford for giving up on the Cold War. The loss of Viet Nam emphasized this.
Ford also appointed John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court. Stevens was to become one of the court's most liberal members.
On top of all of these problems, Ford had to cope with SNL. After two failed assassination attempts, a fall down a staircase, and some golf games where his club went flying into the crowd he became a favorite target for SNL's first season. Many episodes started with Chevy Chase doing a bit as Ford.
I saw an early, live version of SNL under the name of the National Lampoon Comedy Tour. The opening bit was Chase walking haltingly across the stage. Someone said "Let me take you gum, Mr. President." After that he could walk normally. The bit was a reference to LBJ's statement that Ford couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. The audience got the joke.
So Ford was running with a bad economy, a record of poor leadership, and he was a joke on SNL. No one can win against all of this. Against this, the pardon is nothing.
So Jimmy Carter, a one-term governor from a small state became president. Carter had no better idea how to cure the economy than Ford did. Carter also cozied up even closer to the USSR. He talked the Shaw of Iran into leaving office then talked the democratically elected interim government into allowing Ayatollah Khomeini into the country. We are still trying to deal with the fallout of those decisions.
In all, Ford served as a place-holder between the mixed accomplishments of the Nixon administration and the total disaster of the Carter administration. He was likable but undistinguished.