How Ronald Reagan’s 1976 Convention Battle Fueled His 1980 Landslide
On the second day of the hotly contested 1976 Republican National Convention, it was still far from clear which candidate party delegates intended to choose: incumbent President Gerald Ford or his challenger, former actor and California Governor Ronald Reagan. . In the midst of this close and harsh political battle, a brawl broke out between the two camps – over a campaign billboard – and reporters rallied around then-vice president Nelson Rockefeller, trying to get a feel for what had happened.
“Someone came by, none of us knew, and just said [chairman of the New York delegation] Dick Rosenbaum that if he didn’t get this sign back, he was going to tear up the phone, ”Rockefeller told reporters at the conference.
The meeting had started when the sign of a Reagan supporter found its way into Rockefeller’s hands. This Reagan supporter, Jack Bailey, accused Rockefeller of taking the sign, putting it under his feet, and refusing to return it. (Rockefeller claimed he took the sign because he thought Bailey was handing it to him.) In retaliation, Utah delegate Douglas Bischoff allegedly snatched the phone from the New York state delegation. that Rockefeller was using, forcing security guards to remove Bischoff from the convention hall.
READ MORE: How political conventions started – and changed
The explosion highlighted the tense and combative atmosphere between camps Ford and Reagan during the 1976 Republican convention at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri. In addition to the phone incident, there was an argument over whether one of Ford’s sons threw garbage or confetti at Reagan supporters. At one point, according to an oral history from Politico, things got so tense that when a delegate leaning over Ford fell and appeared to have broken his leg, his side scrambled to find a doctor to hitch him up. the leg with campaign programs so that she can stay. on the floor and vote.
Although Reagan ultimately lost the nomination, his battle with Ford – who lost the November election to Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter – helped propel the former California governor to the top of the party rankings four years later.
Reagan already a far-right “ darling ”
The main challenges facing incumbent presidents are unusual, as incumbents typically enjoy strong support within their party. But Gerald Ford’s situation was different.
Unlike every other president in the history of the United States, Ford has never been elected president, or even vice president. Richard Nixon appointed Ford vice president in December 1973 after his former number two, Spiro Agnew, resigned over a financial scandal. When the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign in August 1974 – less than a year after Ford became vice president – the former parliamentary minority leader became the country’s first unelected president.
Which meant that 1976 was Ford’s first presidential campaign. Nationally, his pardon of Nixon for Watergate-related crimes had damaged his reputation with voters. Worse yet, it lacked strong support within the Republican Party: it had neither a strong coalition like Nixon, nor a following like Reagan had attracted since the 1960s.
Reagan, who first ran in the Republican presidential primaries in 1968, was seen in party circles as the heir to right-wing Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 campaign ended in a debacle, said Stephen F. Knott, professor of national security. at the US Naval War College and past co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. “Reagan was clearly the darling of the conservative Goldwater wing of the party,” he said. “And in that sense, there was much more of an ideologically inflamed base [than Ford]. ”
After stepping down as governor in 1975, Reagan developed “a radio presence in a way that really puts him in public consciousness as a conservative voice in America,” says Russell Riley, co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program. of the Miller Center. By the time Reagan arrived at the RNC on August 16, 1976, he was a nationally recognized Conservative leader who had appeared on Tonight’s Show with Johnny Carson. And he followed the incumbent president by less than 100 delegates.
READ MORE: 4 contested conventions in the history of presidential elections
A convention hall challenge to a seated president
Neither Reagan nor Ford had enough delegates to secure the nomination at the start of the 1976 convention, so they set to work fighting for the others.
“Ronald Reagan had it all in terms of ideological preferences among the delegates,” Knott says. Still, “Gerald Ford had all the practical advantages: potential trips on Air Force One and White House dinners and maybe even patronage dates.” With an obvious disadvantage, “the Reagans are sort of struggling” for something that helps them.
One of Team Reagan’s tactics was to try to force Ford to nominate their running mate at the start of the convention. Reagan himself had made the unusual decision to nominate his running mate in July, which candidates typically only did at the convention after getting the nomination. His selection of Senate moderate Richard Schweiker was supposed to convince uncommitted moderates. Instead, it angered party extremists like Jesse Helms, known for his long-standing support for segregation and opposition to civil rights.
At the convention, Reagan attempted to change official rules to force Ford to name his running mate before the party picked a candidate. Rockefeller, an unpopular vice president, had announced the year before that he would not be Ford’s running mate in the 1976 election; and it seems Reagan was hoping Ford would pick another unpopular running mate, deflecting the heat from Reagan’s choice. The attempt to force Ford to name someone was a desperate and last-ditch effort, but the rule change did not take place.
Another tactic used by Reagan’s team was to influence the party platform in order to give delegates a sense of what they could expect from Reagan as president. Reagan’s team have won numerous fights over the content of the platform. As a result, “the party platform fundamentally condemns the foreign policy of the outgoing president and his secretary of state,” Knott says.
READ MORE: 5 Things You May Not Know About American Political Conventions
WATCH: America 101: What is a contested election?
“The majority of these Republican delegates, including many Ford delegates, looked down upon [Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger, ”he says. “After witnessing the debacle in Vietnam, and witnessing what they saw as an unbalanced foreign policy in favor of the Soviet Union, it all played out in Reagan’s hands. And he used them, I think, wisely at the convention to try and win over some hesitant Ford delegates.
Ford ultimately won the nomination over Reagan by a narrow margin: 1187 to 1070. In an interview for the Presidential Foundation’s oral history project Gerald R. Ford, journalist and biographer Reagan Lou Cannon speculated that ” if there had been a secret ballot, Reagan would have won and would have been the candidate ”. Stuart Spencer, Ford’s campaign vice president for political organization, also speculated that some Ford delegates would have really preferred Reagan. “We had four delegates in this room in Kansas City who were in tears, crying when they voted for Gerald R. Ford,” he said in an interview for the Miller Center presidential oral history program. “Their first choice was Ronald Reagan, but we possessed them for something practical and pragmatic patronage, or something we shot at them.
Ford’s general election defeat to Carter in November 1976 further strengthened Reagan, who continued to build his brand as a conservative radio commentator between that date and the next election. In 1980, 12 years after his first Republican presidential primary, Reagan won the party nomination and then the presidency in a landslide.