The 1976 Contested Republican Convention

1976_Republican_National_ConventionRonald Reagan concedes defeat after losing on first ballot (Official photograph by William Fitz-Patrick, via Wikimedia Commons)

Early in the primary season of 2016, commentators speculated about the possibility of a contested Republican convention. Given the number of candidates it seemed likely no one would have 1,237 pledged delegates, the number required by the Republican Party to take the 2016 nomination, before the start of the convention. Delegates to a convention must honor their pledge to vote for a candidate on the first and sometimes the second ballot. If no candidate has won the nomination at that point, then the candidates must campaign for delegates on the floor. The party keeps voting until a nominee reaches the required number of delegates. In 1924, the Democratic Party chose its nominee on the 103rd ballot; however, such disagreement over choosing a candidate has been uncommon in recent years. The last time the Republican Party headed into a convention without a frontrunner was in 1976 when Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the nomination.

As Gerald Ford contemplated the 1976 presidential election, he found himself in a unique position—an incumbent president who had never been elected to the office. While Ford had never lost an election to the House of Representatives in his home state of Michigan, he had never won an election on the national stage. Moreover, since pardoning his predecessor Richard Nixon in September 1974, Ford struggled in public opinion polls when it came to trust in his leadership. Ford firmly believed he made the best decision he could to help the country move past Watergate, but not everyone agreed. At the same time, his incumbency could help him in a general election so long as he could appear as a president not a candidate during the primary season. In other words, he needed to stay above the political fray.

Instead, Ford found himself fighting for the Republican nomination against Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, who announced his intention to run in November 1975. Reagan spent much of the year speaking across the country and gauging interest in his candidacy; during that time, he made it clear to his inner circle he only intended to run if he could win. The Republican Party had been wrestling with its ideological identity since 1964. Reagan’s candidacy reflected the growing number of conservatives in the party, who by the mid-1970s expressed concern over Ford’s moderate stances on domestic and foreign policy issues. Ford’s perceived weaknesses as a leader convinced Reagan he could win the Republican nomination without dividing the party.

From February to June, the Ford and Reagan campaigns worked diligently to win delegates in the primaries. Before the New Hampshire primary, Reagan took the lead in the polls, and had he won New Hampshire, his candidacy most certainly would have spelled doom for Ford. However, Ford’s campaign found a winning issue to improve his fortunes. In September, Reagan gave a speech in which he proposed an overhaul of federal government programs to give states greater control. Inherently appealing to conservatives, the devil turned out to be in the details since Reagan suggested the plan would save the government $90 billion. Ford’s advisers crunched the numbers, and to reach that level of savings and keep the programs afloat states would need to increase taxes, which proved unacceptable to New Hampshire voters. Though Reagan campaigned effectively in appearances across the state, Ford secured more delegates in the contest. Ford won the next four primaries, including the important state of Florida. While Reagan faced pressure to bow out, he refused and a victory in North Carolina rejuvenated his effort.

Ford and Reagan split the remaining primaries. After the California primary in June, neither had won the needed 1,130 delegates to take the nomination. Both campaigns sought to secure pledges from delegates in the remaining caucus and convention states as well as uncommitted delegates. James Baker III took on the effort of winning additional delegates for the president, and here Ford’s incumbency helped. Recently Baker told CNN he “went to more state dinners than anyone in the Ford administration with the possible exception of Betty and Gerald Ford because that was a perk that was perfectly legal.” Reagan did not have the same ability to provide perks, but Baker did note he had a committed movement behind him, which could be important if the party failed to select a nominee on the first ballot. Baker’s hard work added to Ford’s numbers, giving him a slight edge over Reagan—1,102 to 1,063—by July. Still, Ford had not secured the nomination.

In an attempt to shift the delegate count in Reagan’s favor, John Sears, his campaign manager, suggested announcing a vice presidential nominee before the convention opened in August. The staff scouted for a more liberal Republican who would assist the ticket in the Northeast, where Reagan tended to poll lower. Ultimately, Sears suggested Richard Schweiker, a senator from Pennsylvania, who potentially could swing his state’s uncommitted delegates to Reagan’s column, thereby securing the nomination. While Reagan and Schweiker represented different ideological ends of the party, Reagan agreed to meet with the Pennsylvanian to discuss the prospect. The meeting convinced Reagan the pairing could be beneficial in spite of their differences. And so, a week before the convention, Reagan announced his choice. Fairly quickly, the Reagan camp found out the negatives of their choice outweighed the positives as many leading conservative backers felt betrayed and delegates on the fence moved closer to Ford (who thought surely when his aides told him about the announcement they were joking).

When the convention finally began in Kansas City on August 16, Reagan’s opportunity to win the nomination had certainly decreased. Nevertheless, his team still had a few opportunities to create some momentum toward their candidate. First, they proposed a rule requiring all candidates to announce their vice presidential selections before the balloting. Although Reagan had significant delegate support when the proposed rule went to the floor for a vote, it did not pass. Second, they sought to dictate the contents of the platform most noticeably through the “Morality in Foreign Policy” plank. Reagan had long been critical of Ford’s decision to continue détente, the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy which sought to promote peaceful coexistence with the communist world, and this proposal undermined future Republican support for a practical as opposed to an ideological approach to foreign policy problems. Ford decided not to challenge the proposal so as to avoid a fight over the platform on the convention floor that might cost him delegate support.

Gerald Ford won the Republican nomination in 1976 by holding on to his delegates and adding enough uncommitted delegates to put him at 1,187 to 1,070 on the first ballot. Ronald Reagan, per arrangements made between the two camps before the convention, dutifully supported his opponent in the general election. Conservative Republicans might have lost the nomination, but they won the platform fight. Reagan’s committed delegates pushed through several seemingly small changes that collectively had a significant impact on the tone of the platform. Historian Stephen F. Hayward called it “a full-throated conservative manifesto.” Ford, then, had to campaign on a platform to the right of his own views, which compounded his difficulties in the general election. After the convention, Jimmy Carter, the Democratic Party candidate, had almost a thirty-point lead in the polls. Ford managed to close the gap before November, just barely losing to Carter in the popular vote. However, the divisions in the Republican Party, which played out in the primary season, made it nearly impossible for Ford to win the presidency in his own right.

About the Author

Sarah Katherine Mergel

Sarah Katherine Mergel is an associate professor of history at Dalton State College in Northwest Georgia. She is the author of Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon: Rethinking the Rise of the Right. She is passionate about researching, writing, and teaching on political, intellectual, and diplomatic history since the end of the Civil War. When not studying history, she loves anything about classical music (especially when it involves playing the oboe).

Author Archive Page

Leave a Reply