I'd really like to know, how did it happen that Ronald Reagan lost the Republican Party presidential primaries in 1976, against Gerald Ford.

It's easier for me to understand that he could fail in the presidential primaries of 1968, with smaller experience, weaker surname and (imho) stronger opponent. But why did it happen in 1976?

According to Wikipedia entry and its cited sources, there were many arguments against Ford that were used during the campaign. First of all, Ford was in the administration of Richard Nixon, what already speaks for itself. He even grant a presidential pardon to Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate affair. Also his negotiations about secession of Panama Canal were more in the Democrats' style, and were later continued by Carter, to which Ford finally lost the election. There were also other accusations, like the current situation in Vietnam or signing of Helsinki Accords, what at that time also sounds to me more like Democrats than Republicans.

From my transatlantic perspective and lack of deeper knowledge about America in the 70s, it looks like it should finish with a quick K.O.

I also wonder if the fact that Reagan got divorced in 1949 (and was later elected as the first divorced president of the USA), could be one of the reasons for that. I mean, he was a candidate of the conservative wing of Republicans, which I think could care about such fact. Did Ford try to play this card at all?

Or was it the fact that Reagan was in the Democratic Party before the WW2? What were the main reasons of his fail?

1 Answer 1


Reagan's weakness was that he was not a member of the "Eastern Establishment." Ford was, as well as the incumbent President. That fact led many "established" Republicans to support him "automatically".

Reagan needed a "breakthrough". He came close in New Hampshire, with something like 49.5% of the two-candidate vote. Topping Ford there would have been huge. But without a breakthrough to start the "bandwagon," the Republican establishment wouldn't support him.

Reagan got his breakthrough about the middle of the campaign, in North Carolina, helped by a crusty curmudgeon named Senator Jesse Helms. After that, he won the majority of state primaries, because he was, in fact, the grassroots, sentimental favourite. But the "math" didn't quite work for him, because the eastern states had greater population, even though he and Ford won almost the same number of states. (Note how your 1976 primary map is divided neatly almost east and west, with North Carolina being one of the few Eastern states Reagan won.)

At the convention, he tried to "turn" my home sate of Pennsylvania by naming its (liberal) Republican Senator, Richard Schweiker as his running mate, BEFORE the convention (this is highly unusual in American politics). But the Republican establishment (in the presence of Ford's transportation Secretary, Drew Lewis), intervened, and kept Pennsylvania in the Ford camp, sealing Ford's victory.

There has never been a case where a sitting REPUBLICAN President has been knocked out of his own primary (one or two Democrats may have been). The fact that Reagan came close is greatly to his credit. Basically, the race in the Republican party is for "first runner up", the chance to run the next primary race as the "favourite".

Imagine the medieval Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth where Reagan was the representative of "Lithuania," while Ford was a member of the Polish "western establishment" based between Krakow and Thorn. The "hot button" issues you mention in your third paragraph arouse the Lithuanians (because they pertain to Russia) but not the Poles, who are more distant from them in the west. You might get an analogous situation where the insurgent Lithuanian candidate seriously challenges, but ultimately fails to beat, the incumbent "western establishment" Polish candidate.

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    The incumbancy is a big deal in US politics. The fact that Reagan even made a serious bid for the nomination that year at all speaks volumes about how weak a candidate POTUS Ford was.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 8, 2013 at 19:53
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    +1 Very interesting, thanks! All the mathematic of American elections are so far from European systems, that I would never figure it out, the same with "Eastern Establishment" which I wasn't aware of. While I'm already digging through the related articles, adding some sources / links would greatly improve the answer. Apr 8, 2013 at 19:56
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    @T.E.D.: More for the Republicans than the Democrats. I think LBJ was "knocked out" of his primary by Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy (although his Vice-President Humphrey won the nomination). I'm not sure about Truman. See my last paragraphu.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 8, 2013 at 20:01
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    @DarekWędrychowski: If you use the electoral votes from your link to the general election (not primaries) of 1968 (close enough), you will see that apart from California and Texas, most of Reagan's western states were in the single digits and many of Ford's states were in the double digits. Also, Ford's New York and Pennsylvania balanced Reagan's California and Texas, preposterous as that may seem today.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 8, 2013 at 20:08
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    The LBJ situation was complicated. He was not defeated for his party's nomination, but in general yes he was receiving a serious primary challenge as a sitting POTUS, so yes that was an example of the same phenomenon. He refused to run again rather than fight for the nomination under those circumstances. If he'd run, he may well have won the nomination, but it and the ensuing general election would have been ugly. As it happened, the nomination and general election got about as ugly as could be imagined for the Democrats anyway.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 8, 2013 at 20:44

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