While academics continue their rewrite of the Reagan years, veterans of the beloved president’s old campaigns are getting their recollections down on record.
A new book, Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All, chronicles the 1976 campaign. Its author, political strategist and campaign veteran Craig Shirley, spoke to an AIM luncheon on March 31, 2005.
Ronald Reagan’s two landslide victories in presidential elections obscure the road he traveled to become the Republican nominee. His failed bid for the 1976 Republican nomination would propel him four years later to the nomination and ultimately the presidency.
The 1976 Republican primary pitted Reagan against incumbent Gerald Ford. Ford had assumed the presidency upon the resignation of Richard Nixon. Ford was the first man to assume the presidency due to the 25th Amendment, which provides for presidential succession. Reagan’s decision to challenge Ford was bold—a major primary challenge to a Republican incumbent had last occurred in 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt took on President Taft.
Reagan’s hopes were bolstered by the dismal state of Republican politics. Ford was not popular. The public perceived Ford as clumsy and dim-witted, and the legacy of Richard Nixon did not help his image. Ford also angered conservatives by naming liberal New York Republican Nelson Rockefeller vice-president.
The Republican Party was ailing as well. “The Republican Party was at death’s door,” Shirley said. In the South some state legislatures had no Republican members. Minnesotans dropped the “Republican” moniker, becoming the Independent-Republican Party in an effort to combat the association of the Republicans with Watergate.
The 1976 primary was particularly bitter. Reagan and Ford did not like each other and often took jabs at each other on the campaign trail. Ford made light of Reagan’s acting career and Hollywood vanity. Reagan played to the popular conception that Ford was a bumbling fool.
As the incumbent, Ford had advantages that doomed Reagan’s bid despite his popularity. At one point in the campaign, Reagan’s camp ran out of money, and the candidate was forced to travel commercially. The breakthrough occurred in the North Carolina primary where Reagan, with the support of Senator Jesse Helms, defeated Ford. He would later sweep Ford in Texas.
When the primaries ended, Reagan had more delegate votes than Ford. Ford, however, as the incumbent, remained the front-runner for the nomination. At the Republican convention in Kansas City, Ford won the nomination by 57 votes of more than 2000 cast. Ford would go on to lose the presidency to Jimmy Carter.
Despite its failure, Reagan’s 1976 run set the tone for the Republican Party in the coming years. Reagan energized a demoralized base and charted a new course for the party. “Ford was a transitional figure who was a product of the past,” Shirley said. “Reagan was a transactional figure who was a product of the future.”
Reagan’s philosophy of optimistic conservatism still resonates today, and the movement he fostered continues to gain strength.
“Reagan changed America and Reagan changed the world,” Shirley said.
Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.