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?


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 '13 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. – Darek Wędrychowski Apr 8 '13 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 '13 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 '13 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 '13 at 20:44

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.


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    Reagan was an FDR Democrat until 1962, at the age of 51 – Pieter Geerkens Apr 21 '19 at 17:51
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    It’s kind of interesting that while every republican since Reagan has invoked his name and paid homage to him Reagan ultimately had no political legacy. George H W Bush wasn’t a Reagan Republican but a Nixon Republican chosen to balance the ticket after Ford turned down Reagan for the VP job. So were Dole and Bush Jr. maybe McCain was chiefly influenced by the Gipper but that’s it. – JMS Apr 21 '19 at 20:56
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    @PieterGeerkens Yes he was a FDR Democrat but by 1964 FDR had been dead for two decades. Reagan hadn’t supported a Democrat since Truman. Reagan had publicly endorsed Eisenhower in 52 and 56, Nixon in 60. Endorsing and being a national spokesman for Goldwater’s campaign wasn’t a change in direction for Reagan but the continuation of the path he had been on for more than a decade. – JMS Apr 22 '19 at 19:56

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