1976 Presidential Election

The Republican Convention: August 1976

The Republican Convention


Kansas City, MO ... For the first time since 1912, the Republican Party convened its national convention with the incumbent president facing a serious challenge for the nomination. President Ford's campaign advisors believed they had enough votes to confirm his nomination on the first ballot, but they could not be certain, and the vote would be close.

Pre-convention jockeying and an early vote on convention rules showed Ford's team that they had the necessary votes if they could hold all their delegates until voting began on the convention's third day. The pageantry and electioneering that accompanied the convention's call-to-order, the arrival of the candidates' families, and the nominating speeches, underscored the party's high stakes and the delegates' passions.

As he and his advisors expected, President Ford won on the first ballot, earning 1,187 votes to Governor Reagan's 1,070. Ford delivered a rousing acceptance speech, surprising many when he challenged his Democratic opponent to "debate the real issues face to face." Ford then invited Reagan to address the convention, leaving viewers with the impression of a unified party. The convention was judged a success by viewers. Ford, having arrived in Kansas City trailing the Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter, by 33 points in national polls, had closed that gap considerably by the end of the convention. Still, the margin was seen by many observers to be all but insurmountable.

President Ford shaking hands with Ronald Reagan at the podium after his convention speech.

The Republican Convention

Key Issues

Following Nelson Rockefeller's appointment as Vice President in December 1974, criticism of the selection was swift when many prominent right-wing senators became discontented with Ford's pick. However, none of this deterred Ford's support of someone whom he had full confidence in as the current Vice President.

As late as June 16, 1975, President Ford had fully expected that Vice President Rockefeller would be his running mate the following year. However, happenings over the next several months would eventually lead to a change. The 1974 amendment to the Federal Election Campaign Act which dictated that during a potential primary campaign Ford and Rockefeller could not run as a team due to new fundraising regulations. To quote Ford's campaign manager at the time Howard Callaway, "The Ford and Rockefeller campaigns are not one and the same." While this was technically true, certain public statements at the time made by Callaway made it look like Rockefeller would be a disadvantage on the ticket, something President Ford was furious over due to "his personal loyalty to Nelson."

Ford's decision to not meet Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as he did not want to jeopardize the SALT II talks, followed by Ford's attendance at the Helsinki Accords, which for right-wing conservatives, appeared to give a propaganda victory to the Soviets, were also factors in making a change to the ticket.

Up until October 1975, the comments made by Callaway continued to have a negative effect on Rockefeller's viability as a Vice Presidential candidate. On October 28th President Ford and Vice President Rockefeller had a meeting in the Oval Office where they discussed the growing number of very conservative members of the Republican Party. Rockefeller stated, "Mr. President, I'll do anything you want me to do. I'll be on the ticket, or I'll be off the ticket. You just say the word." President Ford left the final decision up to Rockefeller, later calling this choice one of the most cowardly in his political career. Even Betty chimed in stating, "You’re a darn fool for doing this, Jerry." She was to be proved correct, as two weeks after the word leaked that Rockefeller was being pulled off the ticket, Ronald Reagan called and informed President Ford he would be challenging him in the primaries.

Fast forward nine months later to the Republican Convention and a Ford nomination. Ford now had to select his running mate in the general election against Jimmy Carter, a Georgian, who had wide appeal in southern states. President Ford had been preparing his list of potential Vice-Presidential candidates for some time, including Bill Simon, John Connally, Bob Dole, Howard Baker, Elliot Richardson, and Bill Ruckelshaus. After securing the nomination, President Ford met a defeated Ronald Reagan in the Governor's hotel suite and asked him what he thought of this list; Reagan responded that Dole would be an excellent choice.

President Ford returned to his own hotel suite at 2:00 a.m. A meeting to select his running mate began at 3:15 a.m. with President Ford, Michigan Senator Bob Griffin, Texas Senator John Tower, Vice President Rockefeller, Melvin Laird, Jack Marsh, Robert Hartmann, Larry Harlow, Dick Cheney, Stu Spencer, and Robert Teeter.

Between 2:00 a.m. and 3:15 a.m., Ford added Ambassador to Great Britain Anne Armstrong, Iowa Governor Robert Ray, and Washington Governor Daniel Evans to the list. However, Evans and Ray were quickly removed from consideration after the meeting began as neither had a national following or experience in international affairs. Elliot Richardson was then deemed too moderate while Bill Simon was deemed too conservative. Many of Ford's advisors supported former Texas Governor and Treasury Secretary John Connelly. As for Robert Teeter, polls showed a potential downward turn, and Ford removed him from the list.

According to Ford, had he been forced to select a running mate before or during the convention he would have selected Bill Ruckelshaus, former acting FBI director, head of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and most famously known for resigning during the "Saturday Night Massacre" rather than being forced to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate Special Prosecutor. There were two problems with Ruckelshaus. He had never won a statewide election, but more importantly, he was from Indiana, which would mean the top of the ticket would be entirely from the upper Midwest. This resulted in the removal of his name.

Ford seriously considered Ambassador Armstrong. However, some thought her selection might make him look desperate since he was well behind Jimmy Carter in the polls at the time. President Ford believed that since Margaret Thatcher became the United Kingdom's Conservative Party head in 1975, then why not nominate Armstrong? She was not selected, but President Ford recalled this decision as a "very close one" in his memoir A Time to Heal. He stated, "She came close. Very close. Naming her was something I really wanted to do, but I found myself drawing back every time I thought about it. And In retrospect, if given the opportunity to make that decision again, I might well have said, "Damn the torpedoes" and gambled on Anne."

The decision between the final two candidates, Dole and Baker, came down to one of friendship and farming. Ford and Dole had been friends as members of the House of Representatives. Bob Dole had supported Ford in being named minority leader and, in turn, Gerald Ford had supported Bob Dole in becoming the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. But the main reason President Ford would select Bob Dole as his running mate was Ford's big problem with farmers.

The short-lived 1975 Soviet Grain Embargo would ultimately be the deciding factor. The issue with farmers was extremely divisive in the Republican Party, as highlighted by one quote from a central Kansas banker and wheat farmer in the New York Times. "I've usually been an Administration supporter, but I'm pushing for Reagan now. We don't know that we won't be double‐crossed just as badly by him. But we do know for sure who double-crossed us now, and that's Ford." The losses perceived by the farmers in 1975 for not being able to sell their grain to the Soviet Union were unknown, but even so, the farmers of Kansas, Nebraska, and other large agricultural states were mad at the Ford administration as shown by how well Ronald Reagan did in the primary.

The selection of Bob Dole would heal these wounds and coalesce Ford's base support among previously staunch Republican voters in the Farm Belt.

Heading into the 1976 Republican Convention in Kansas City, neither Gerald Ford nor Ronald Reagan had received enough delegates to win outright. This created a dramatic competition between the two candidates to gain as many open delegates as possible to secure the nomination on the third day.

Prior to the convention in August in order to get support for his candidacy, Governor Ronald Reagan selected Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his potential running mate. Governor Reagan had hoped this selection would gather support from the more moderate member of the Republican Party. The move backfired on Governor Reagan. It did not swing any moderate delegates to his side, and it outraged the party's conservative wing. Due to this setback Governor Reagan's team (led by John Sears) drafted Rule 16C, which would be debated and voted on at the convention.

Prior to 1976 the standard process for selecting a Vice President did not occur until after the Presidential nominee was selected at the party's convention on the third day. The fourth day was set for the vote by delegates to approve the party's nominee for Vice President.

Rule 16C, otherwise known as "The Right to Know Amendment", would force Gerald Ford into declaring a Vice Presidential candidate prior to the final vote on who was to be the nominee. The Ford Campaign was extremely worried about the outcome of the 16C vote, and they feared it could potentially change the focus from President Ford's candidacy and back on to Governor Reagan the very day before the party selected its nominee.

On Tuesday, August 17, the convention's second day, Rule 16C was debated by supporters of both Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Senator Robert Griffin of Michigan spoke on behalf of President Ford. He viewed Rule 16C as a troublesome proposal. He believed it would drive a wedge between members of the Republican Party and make unity following the convention harder to achieve. The argument was that if Ford was nominated by the Republican Party, he would be unable to select Reagan as his running mate if voters passed 16C. Later in the day the amendment was voted on and failed to pass. This sealed the fate of Ronald Reagan's candidacy and boosted Gerald Ford to win the candidacy of his party. He would go on to run against Jimmy Carter in the 1976 National Election.

The National Republican Party's Foreign Policy statement began with a pledge for a realistic and principled foreign policy designed to meet the needs of the nation in the years ahead. Key goals identified included issues such as Soviet relations and the Panama Canal. When it came to the negotiations with the Soviet Union, the policy was clear. It sought improved relations following the very successful Vladivostok Agreement made between President Ford and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1974. This agreement limited the total number of each country's strategic launchers and nuclear missiles. With regard to the Panama Canal, the statement read that "in any talks with Panama, the United States negotiators should in no way cede, dilute, forfeit, negotiate or transfer any rights, power, authority, jurisdiction, territory or property that are necessary for the protection and security of the United States and the entire Western Hemisphere." Regarding national defense, the Ford administration declared its interest in increasing the size of the U.S. Army to 16 divisions and continuing to develop what would become the MX missile and the B-1 Bomber.

The 1976 Republican Primary was one of the most acrimonious on record. It was one of the few times in American history where an incumbent president had been challenged by a member of his own party.

It all began on November 19, 1975. President Ford and Vice President Rockefeller were meeting when they were interrupted by a phone call from California Governor Ronald Reagan. The governor informed the president that, "I am going to run for President. I trust we can have a good contest, and I hope that it won't be divisive." President Ford responded, "Regardless of your good intentions, your bid is bound to be divisive. It will take a lot of money, a lot of effort, and it will leave a lot of scars. It won't be helpful, no matter which of us wins the nomination." President Ford wrote of his thoughts about this phone call in his biography A Time to Heal. He stated, "How can you challenge an incumbent President of your own party and not be divisive?"

President Ford was correct in his assessment of what was to come. The brutal primary campaign saw the Republican Party fracture itself along two fault lines. During the convention itself things got out of hand with reported fist fights in the halls between Ford and Reagan supporters. This continued even after Ford's selection as the Party nominee when over 100 Reagan delegates stormed out of the Kansas City convention hall in protest.

President Ford did everything he could to heal the wounds caused by Reagan's challenge. After giving his 38-minute acceptance speech, President Ford invited the Reagans onstage to join in the celebration. He then surprised everyone by saying, "We are all a part of this great Republican family that will give leadership to the American people to win on November 2. I would be honored on your behalf to ask my good friend, Governor Reagan to say a few words at this time." And while Reagan's speech at this convention would help propel him to the Presidency in 1980, it only had the effect of putting on what one historian had called a "mask of unity" during the upcoming general election of 1976.

The delegate race between President Ford and Governor Reagan was a seesaw affair throughout the primary and state Republican Party campaign season.

President Ford won the first six contests, racking up 174 delegates to Reagan's 121. The Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary were exceptionally close contests, which Ford won by very slim margins. However, Ford won the next four races in Massachusetts, Vermont, Florida, and Illinois on a broader scale, and it looked as if an early Reagan departure was possible. Going into North Carolina, pollster Robert Teeter had President Ford up by double digits. However, a last minute, "very intensive" push by Reagan won him the state. Reagan's North Carolina victory was only the third time in U.S. history that a challenger defeated an incumbent President in a primary. This loss also represented the first time in 30 years that Ford had lost a political race. Despite this loss, Ford led the race via a commanding lead of 206 to 81 delegates.

The contest then headed back north to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Ford won these states handily as Reagan chose not to compete there. Instead, Reagan turned his attention to a paid national televised address that sought to increase his profile in southern and western states. Reagan's strategy worked. He won Texas, Georgia, Indiana, and Nebraska. President Ford only won in West Virginia. While Ford expected to lose Texas and Georgia with their higher representation of more conservative Republican voters, he did not expect to lose Indiana, a state neighboring his own Michigan! At one-point polls showed Ford up 24 points in Indiana, and a loss here looked like the momentum had shifted to the Reagan campaign.

Halfway through the race, Reagan led with 468 committed delegates to Ford’s 318, with 354 uncommitted. Things simply did not look good for the incumbent while Reagan was predicting a first ballot win at the convention in August. However, another lead change occurred in May, with Ford winning major victories in Michigan and Maryland.

On May 25 six states held primaries, with three states going to Reagan (Arkansas, Nevada and Idaho) and three going to President Ford (Kentucky, Tennessee and Oregon). The day's overall victory went to Reagan who had won more delegates than Ford. As of June 1st, President Ford had accumulated 805 delegates to date, needing 325 to reach the 1,130 needed to win the nomination.

On June 8 California, Ohio, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Montana held their primaries. Again, President Ford and Reagan split the six states. This time, however, President Ford walked away with 219 delegates to Reagan's 190. Ford was now up in the delegate count 992 to 886. The race now turned to those states who selected delegates via convention in addition to the uncontested delegates free to select the candidate of their choice.

President Ford and Governor Reagan now had to fight for each delegate personally. On June 8 Elizabeth Drew of The New Yorker magazine observed, "Now the President of the United States will fight it out, delegate by delegate, in the remaining state conventions and among the uncommitted delegates. This may be a nice time for an uncommitted delegate but it's not such a nice time for the President of the United States." The sitting President had a major advantage over his opponent, as he could offer perks, favors, jobs, etc. to entice delegates. Governor Reagan could only offer the possibility of future support; President Ford could offer these things now.

Despite this advantage, President Ford did not get off to a great start securing delegates. In Missouri Reagan gathered up 18 of the 19 delegates. Later in Washington and New Mexico, the same occurred with Reagan's grassroots support narrowing the slim lead Ford had in the delegate count. President Ford believed his campaign expected to win all of the delegates needed by the end of the primary campaign season. Therefore, they did not launch an effective ground game in reaching out to uncommitted and state convention delegates.

Other issues presented themselves in the delegate race. The U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon was assassinated, which forced Ford to skip the Iowa convention. He was also unable to attend the Colorado state convention in July; he previously committed to hosting Queen Elizabeth at the White House. A month before the convention on July 18, the gap between Ford and Reagan had narrowed to 39 delegates, with 94 delegates still uncommitted to either side.

Ford insisted that no quid pro quo be offered to any uncommitted delegates other than an invitation to the White House for a photo opportunity. Ronald Reagan then announced his selection of Vice-Presidential running mate, Richard Schweiker, in an attempt to pull away Pennsylvania delegates. The move backfired and resulted in many uncommitted delegates coming over to Ford, including Mississippi delegates not previously expected to side with Ford.

Heading into the convention in Kansas City, the prospects of Ford winning on the first ballot had increased significantly. When delegate voting began on August 18, Mississippi held firm, with Ford winning 30 of its delegates. Twenty of West Virginia's 28 delegates went to Ford, resulting in President Ford winning the Republican Party's nomination. Ford now would run in the general election against Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

The Republican Convention



Comprehensive convention strategy memo, written by Special Assistant Mike Duval.
  View Memo (PDF)


Memo from Vice Presidential staff member Peter Wallison discussing whether convention delegates are truly bound to follow the results of their state's primary.
  View Memo (PDF)


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's suggestions for President Ford's acceptance speech at the convention.
  View Document (PDF)


Treasury Secretary Bill Simon writes to President Ford urging a debate with Jimmy Carter and offering suggestions.
  View Letter (PDF)


Public opinion pollster Robert Teeter's memo concerning a national poll on five Vice Presidential possibilities.
  View Memo (PDF)


1976 Republican Platform
  Link to Platform (web page)


President Ford announces to the media his selection of Senator Robert Dole as his running-mate.
  View Announcement (PDF)


President Ford's Remarks Upon Accepting the Republican Presidential Nomination.
  Link to Speech (web page)

The Republican Convention


Ford Nomination Acceptance Speech

Reagan Convention Speech

President Ford's remarks at the 2:05 a.m. press conference with Ronald Reagan after receiving the Republican nomination (Audio)

Running mates Bob Dole and President Ford addressing a crowd outside the courthouse in Russell, Kansas, 8/20/1976