1976 GOP Nomination was very close and was decided during the convention not before like most party nominations.
1976 GOP Convention
President Gerald Ford 1,187 52.57%
Ronald Reagan 1,070 47.39%
In General The Ford Camp successfully painted Reagan as too extreme, too conservative, to win a national campaign. Reagan alternatively used the campaign including his concession speech at the podium of the national campaign with his wife Nancy and Gerald Ford at his side, to present his case. Such speeches and appearances in the razor close 1976 campaign, propelled Reagan as a front runner in 1980 and helped to inoculate him from the same tactic in the future.
Assessing Ronald Reagan At 100
(1980 election) Nonetheless, Carter and the Democrats were confident of victory. Reagan was too old, they whispered. Too extreme.
Reagan’s weakness was he was seen as too extreme, too conservative, to win national office.
Reagan made conservatism mainstream(in 1980). No more than five years earlier, it had been deemed extremist. But although Reagan failed in the pursuit of the GOP nomination for the presidency — by the narrowest of margins — against incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, it propelled him into the forefront of the political arena.
He scared most Americans. He never would have gotten a shot at the GOP ticket if the main stream of that party hadn't imploded around him, first with watergate, then with Ford's pardon of Nixon, and finally with the Ford landslide defeat at the hands of Jimmy Carter in 1976.
The New Shape of American Politics
When Reagan was elected President in 1980, many Americans were frightened by his rhetoric. His economic policies sounded harsh and threatening, his social policies divisive and his foreign policies reckless. It is a mark of how desperate the country felt that we elected Reagan President despite those reservations. We don't usually elect ideological candidates. We often admire figures like Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, George Wallace, and Jesse Jackson, because they are not typical politicians. They say what they believe. But we usually elect centrists and compromisers like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter.
Reagan was literally the last man standing in 1980 and a big part of that was his near miss in the 1976 Republican Nomination process.
Unlike most American politicians Reagan was a true believer and his critics tarnished him with the voices of the folks who he had supported.
Reagan was a devout cold warrior who had been a secret witness for Joseph Macarthy's House Committee on UnAmerican Activities.
Reagan was associated with John Birch Society an ultra conservative group in California who's founder proclaimed Eisenhower a member of the Communist Party. There is some controversy behind this because Regan had denounced them in his race for Gov of California, but there was evidence and rhetoric he had previously been a member.
He was a national spokesman for the Goldwater fringe of the Republican Party. Goldwater who said, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” and advocated for the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam.
Goldwater who got crushed in 1964 by LBJ and that association was used to dismiss Reagan in 1976 by moderate Republicans in power.
Reagan lost to Ford in 1976 because while he had grass root GOP support; Ford had moderates and the Nixon political machine not to mention incumbency behind him.
Ford would offer the VP slot to Reagan in 1976, and Reagan would decline the spot and retire back to California for the general. Ford would blame Reagan for his 1976 loss saying Reagan’s lack of support and unwillingness to help Ford with conservatives is what sealed his loss.
Ford, Reagan were definitely no bosom buddies
To Ford's "dying day" (last Dec. 26), he "blamed Reagan for his 1976 loss to Jimmy Carter," DeFrank writes. It was bad enough that Reagan launched a bid to deny him the Republican presidential nomination. But even worse, after Ford prevailed, Reagan (in Ford's view) barely went through the motions of helping the GOP ticket in the general election.
For Ford, the consummate party man, that was unpardonable. And he remained convinced that with Reagan's help, he would have edged Carter in their close 1976 contest.
Mostly though it was the combination of Fords pardon of Nixon prior to the 1976 election and Jimmy Carters formula of appeal with southern evangelicals combined with traditional democratic voters. Carter was himself an evangelical from Georgia and attracted these social conservative voters who had left the Democratic Party in the 1960s over differences with first Kennedy and then Johnson. Carters formula Reagan would perfect 4 years latter in defeating Carter in the 1980 elections were he offered Gerald Ford the VP spot on the ticket before settling on George H W Bush.