1976 Presidential Election

The Republican Primaries: January – July 1976

The Republican Primaries


President Ford and Governor Reagan would battle for delegates state by state. Twenty-nine of those states would hold primary elections. The remaining states would select delegates through conventions. Territories and the District of Columbia also would select their delegates using either method.

Most states restricted voting by political party. Some states, however, allowed voters to "cross over," casting ballots regardless of their party registration. State political parties apportioned delegates to the candidates based on votes each received. Some states awarded delegates based on the percentage of votes earned, often apportioning them by congressional district. Some primary states, however, awarded all their delegates to the winner. Delegates in some states were bound by law or party rules to cast votes at the national convention for the candidate to whom they were pledged. Other states allowed for shifting loyalties or for delegates to remain undecided.

Convention states held caucuses, where people gathered in neighborhoods to select delegates for the next round of caucuses. These built-in pyramid-like fashion to the state's convention, where the state party chose its slate of delegates for the national convention, apportioning them based on the percentage of support each candidate earned. Some delegates, even an entire state's delegation, might be uncommitted.

More people participated in state primaries than in state conventions. A primary election might turn out a quarter or more of that state's adult population whereas only five percent or less might participate in caucuses. Because of this, primaries tended to weaken political parties, placing premiums on candidates with strong grassroots support and effective campaign organizations, discounting incumbency and party loyalty.

The 1976 Republican primaries passed through three phases before shifting its attention to the convention states. First, Ford won five straight primaries, including the crucial states of New Hampshire and Florida. Then Reagan earned his first victory with an upset-win in North Carolina and followed that by winning every delegate in the Texas primary, stealing the momentum from the President. Ford, however, recovered by winning his home state of Michigan. In the last phase, Ford and Reagan exchanged wins through the final primaries in early June. Meanwhile, each battled for convention-state and undecided delegates, as neither could be certain he had enough pledged delegates to win the Republican nomination at the national convention in Kansas City that August.

President and Betty Ford waiving from the train during his Whistle Stop tour in Michigan.

The Republican Primaries

Key Issues

Gerald Ford did not enjoy all the advantages of an incumbent president. Having never run for the office, he had not built a nationwide base of support. New campaign finance laws, passed after the 1972 election and amended after the Watergate scandal, placed a premium on grassroots organization.

The law offered candidates public financing of their campaigns, provided they could raise $5,000 in each of 20 states from donors (whose own contributions also were limited by law) and provided they accepted spending limits ($10 million in the primaries and $20 million in the general election). Congress also created the Federal Election Commission to oversee the implementation of these laws and ensure compliance by the campaign organizations.

Court challenges would modify spending restrictions, declaring for instance that private citizens acting independent of parties and candidates could spend as they pleased. A Supreme Court decision in 1975 also changed the way FEC commissioners were appointed, leading to a delay in the distribution of federal campaign funds during a crucial period in the spring of 1976.

One effect of the laws was to shift more power away from party organizations and toward campaign organizations. They weakened Republican and Democratic national committees and placed greater value on campaigns building a broader base. Not only did this place President Ford at a disadvantage, as his chief of staff, Richard Cheney, pointed out, the campaign was trying to build that base on the back of a party that was "outnumbered two to one nationwide in party registration."

A problem for every administration since Eisenhower's, this arcane dispute between organized labor unions and construction contractors emerged when the Supreme Court declared in 1951 that it was illegal for unions to picket an entire construction site because of disputes with a single contractor or sub-contractor. Secretary of Labor John Dunlap told President Ford early in 1975 that he had a plan he thought both sides would support. Ford told Dunlap, "If you can do that, I’ll support the bill openly."

Dunlap forged a hard-fought compromise, and the Common Situs Picketing bill passed through Congress. Before the bill reached Ford's desk, however, a key constituent, the Associated General Contractors of America, under pressure from its membership, rescinded its endorsement. Ford later recalled "over 700,000 letters, telegrams, and phone calls" flooding the White House, most calling for the President to veto the bill. Key Cabinet members and advisors agreed.

Ford informed Congress on December 22, 1975 of his intention to veto Common Situs. Describing it later as "one of my most difficult decisions," his veto explained that the matter was too controversial and would lead to higher unemployment, higher construction costs, and slower growth in an already depressed industry.

Some campaign advisors told Ford that his veto dashed "any hope I might have had of attracting broad union support." Others argued that signing it would have strengthened Reagan's challenge because the bill "flew right in the face of the right-to-work legislation" in key primary states. His veto did serve to motivate labor unions in important industrial states to help Governor Carter register and turn out voters.

Nelson Rockefeller was a lightning rod. As governor of New York, he twice ran for president, in 1964 and 1968. When Nixon considered vice presidential possibilities in 1973, following Spiro Agnew's resignation, he considered both Rockefeller and Reagan but dismissed each as too polarizing.

Nixon chose Ford, then resigned eight months later. Ford, now in need of a vice president, looked afresh at Rockefeller and saw strength and substance. At a time when the nation was bleeding political confidence, Rockefeller was national triage, Ford concluded, a proven talent who would "go a long way toward helping me bind up the wounds."

Even before Ford announced his candidacy, the President endorsed Rockefeller as his 1976 running mate. But trouble set in almost immediately. On July 9, 1975, the day after Ford made his official announcement, Bo Callaway, Ford's campaign manager, met with members of the press and said "the Ford and Rockefeller campaigns are not one and the same," and Callaway implied that the Vice President was a liability. Callaway's campaign strategy, which emphasized the South, required strong conservative support, and that, Callaway believed, made Rockefeller a problem.

Despite an admonishment from Ford, Callaway went before the press again on July 24, and suggested someone younger than the 67-year-old Rockefeller was needed, adding, "If Rockefeller took himself out, it would help with the nomination." Ford again upbraided Callaway, who soon began talking about Rockefeller as an asset. But Ford was forced to admit "the damage had been done."

On October 28, the President and Vice President met in the Oval Office. Ford could tell Rockefeller "was deeply hurt," believing his contributions to the Administration had been ignored. Recent polls suggest the problem ran deeper. Rockefeller's approval rating was less than 30%, and a quarter of Republicans polled said they would not vote for Ford if Rockefeller remained on the ticket.

As the two discussed the growing strength of the Republican right, Ford recalled Rockefeller offering to remove himself from the ticket. "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." Ford acknowledged there were problems that might be lessened if it were the latter. "I’ll give you a letter saying that I don’t want to be considered as a Vice Presidential nominee," Rockefeller told the President. Ford later wrote, "I was angry with myself for showing cowardice in not saying to the ultraconservatives, 'It’s going to be Ford and Rockefeller, whatever the consequences.'"

Governor Reagan saved some of his most heated rhetoric for the issue of the Panama Canal Zone. Responding to a reporter in April 1976, President Ford explained that though the United States built and operated the canal in Panama, both presidents Johnson and Nixon, and now Ford himself, have been negotiating "an agreement which will protect our right to defend that canal and to maintain and operate it."

Reagan used the issue to turn the tide in North Carolina, telling audiences that Panama was run by a "pro-communist" dictator, Omar Torrijos, a Panamanian general who had seized power in 1968. Negotiating with such rulers risked American interests in the region. Besides, he asserted, the canal belonged to the United States; "We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we intend to keep it."

The issue helped Reagan in key states such as North Carolina and Texas. In May, Time Magazine noted that the Canal "apparently struck a nerve among parts of the electorate." That same month, Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona, wrote President Ford, advising him to "get off Panama."

Foreign policy loomed larger in the Republican primaries than it would in the general election. Much of the criticism swirled around détente, a policy that sought to ease tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Begun in the days after the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis, détente ramped up when the Nixon Administration pushed for new trade and arms limitation agreements between the two nations.

Governor Reagan believed détente left the United States "number two in a world where it is dangerous, if not fatal, to be second best." He pointed specifically to the Helsinki accords, charging that it placed "our stamp of approval on Russia's enslavement of the captive nations." President Ford, feeling the sting of Reagan's attacks on détente, began to drop the term in favor of the phrase "peace through strength," arguing that agreements with the Soviet Union "will not take us back to the Cold War era like some people want." Far from making the United States number two, Ford argued that the nation's nuclear forces were more accurate, more survivable, and more plentiful than those of the Soviets.

Governor Reagan criticized Henry Kissinger in his stump speeches, claiming the Secretary of State's "stewardship of United States foreign policy has coincided precisely with the loss of United States military supremacy." Pointing to Soviet-backed Cuban involvement in Angola, Reagan launched dual salvos at both the President and Secretary of State. Questioning their priorities, Reagan told an audience in Florida that "Ford and Kissinger continue to tell us that we must not let this interfere with détente."

President Ford, having already turned out his Vice President because of intra-party politics, was not about to sacrifice his Secretary of State upon the same alter. Early primary victories bolstered Ford's confidence that Kissinger would not be harmful to his campaign. Losses in early May led him to tell reporters questioning his confidence in Kissinger that "We are in the process of analyzing the total picture, not just one issue." By early June, Ford's resolve had hardened. Responding to a question by George Herman, of CBS, Ford said of Kissinger, "I happen to think he has done a first-class job towards peace and that is the responsibility of the Secretary, to carry out my foreign policy. It has been successful, so I want him to stay."

Still, the Reagan team hammered away at what they were convinced was an obvious weakness. At the convention in Kansas City, having lost the battle over Rule 16C, the Reagan platform committee pushed to amend the party's foreign policy plank. The Ford team understood it to be a slap at Kissinger. Hoping for post-convention party unity, however, they decided not to challenge Reagan supporters on this issue. An irate Kissinger threatened to resign if the plank passed. Tom Korologos, a Ford floor manager, told the Secretary of State, "Well, Henry, if you're going to resign, do it now. We need the votes." Kissinger did not, and the plank passed.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an exiled Soviet dissident and a Nobel Prize winning author whose work focused the West's attention on gulags, forced labor camps, in the Soviet Union. In 1975 North Carolina's Republican Senator, Jesse Helms, told the White House that Solzhenitsyn wanted to visit the President. Henry Kissinger and other foreign policy advisors feared the meeting might place SALT II talks with the Soviets at risk. Ford told Helms the demands of his schedule and his pending trip to Europe in July prevented such a meeting. This "snub" was leaked to the press, causing a furor among conservatives. Ford then told Helms that he "would be glad to see Solzhenitsyn" upon his return from Helsinki, but the meeting never occurred.

Some in the White House believed the Solzhenitsyn affair was an unforced error. Terry O’Donnell, President Ford's personal aide, in hindsight, called it "a real mistake." Governor Reagan used it in the primaries as a cudgel, and Solzhenitsyn was mentioned prominently alongside Helsinki and détente in the foreign policy plank at the Kansas City convention which, Time Magazine reported, "not very obliquely assailed" the "Nixon-Ford-Kissinger" years.

Weeks before Ronald Reagan publicly declared his candidacy to challenge President Ford, he gave a speech before the Chicago Executives Club. Covered little by the press at the time, it would become a major campaign issue known as the $90 Billion Dollar speech. In it, Reagan attacked "the belief that government, particularly the federal government, has the answer to our ills." Attempting to revive federalism, he asserted programs such as welfare, education, housing, and food stamps were more appropriately state and local matters. "Transfer of authority in whole or in part in all these areas would reduce the outlay of the federal government by more than ninety billion dollars," Reagan said.

When asked about it, Ford worried about the burden that would fall on states, especially ones like New Hampshire that had no state income tax, "if all of a sudden $90 billion worth of extra cost was thrown on their shoulders." Rather, Ford argued the growth in the federal budget should be slowed, taxes should be cut, and states should have more control over federal grant money. By the time the primaries were underway, Ford could brag that he had vetoed 46 bills, 39 of which had been sustained by Congress. "We have saved $13 billion by those vetoes," the President boasted.

Governor Reagan often spoke about how large the federal government had grown, pushing back against those, he said, who believed "the government, particularly the federal government, has the answer to our ills." A burgeoning Washington was making state and local governments "subdivisions of Big Brother government."

President Ford, however, was well positioned to deflect this charge. As a congressman and as the President, Ford repeated his oft-used line that "a government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have." As president, Ford had tangible achievements to which he could point.

As early as August 1974, Ford told reporters in Milwaukee, he ordered agencies to reduce the projected increase in federal employment, "and we achieved that reduction." In New Hampshire, Ford singled out his consolidation of federal grant programs to cities, reducing seven categorical grants to one, and in doing so, "eliminating over 2,100 federal bureaucratic positions." He hoped to enact similar solutions for health and social service programs. "The whole effort is to reduce the federal bureaucracy and to make the money available at the local level so that the services are delivered under local control and jurisdiction," Ford explained.

The Republican Primaries

Key States

New Hampshire hosted the nation's first primary. Here, President Ford would seek his first votes outside of his Michigan congressional district. He entered the contest trailing Reagan in polls among Republicans and unable to raise his public approval rating above fifty percent. Many shared Stu Spencer's assessment that "if the President lost New Hampshire, it was over with."

Spencer would run Ford's ground game in the Granite State, where he struggled against unforced errors such as Press Secretary Ron Nessen's repeating to the New Hampshire press Ford's private remarks about the state's "icy" ski slopes, interpreted by locals as a "slur" against a key industry. Perhaps more serious was former President Nixon's announcement early in February that he would return to China on the fourth anniversary of his landmark 1972 visit. "He knew it wasn’t helpful to Ford," Spencer later said about Nixon inserting himself again into national headlines.

Still, Spencer, who knew Reagan well, intended to make the former Governor, not the President, the issue in New Hampshire. So, the Ford campaign hammered away at Reagan's plan to shift billions of dollars from the federal budget to the states. "I want to know how much this would cost the people of New Hampshire," Spencer told his researchers. Spencer's goal was to put Reagan on the defensive, "to get him out of rhythm," and it worked.

Also helpful was the Ford family. Susan took to the ski slopes. Mrs. Ford visited nursing homes and hospitals in city after city. The President talked freely with the press and university students. Reagan, confident of victory, left days before the election. The President and his team stayed, campaigning through the weekend and manning phone banks through election day on February 24.

As the vote count was tallied, Reagan led late into the night. Only in the last hours of the counting did Ford move ahead and hang on for a narrow but vital win. "We started out as the underdog, which is really the only thing that saved us in New Hampshire," Richard Cheney remembered. President Ford showed he could come from behind and win the support of a state not named Michigan. His campaign operation remained a work-in-progress, but it had narrowly avoided catastrophe.

Only two weeks lay between the New Hampshire and Florida primaries, and Ford rolled into the Sunshine State on a high tide, his narrow New Hampshire victory propelling him to as much as a 17-point lead in some state polls. This masked problems, however, within the Ford camp. The campaign lacked a national plan, according to Stu Spencer. Rather, the campaign was organized around the assumption that "Reagan has to win New Hampshire and Florida to get in the game." Should the President lose either, "it was over with." This meant heavy investments in both states. Additionally, the campaign's Florida chairman was distracted by his own political ambitions. Spencer maneuvered to have him replaced with his former business partner from California, Bill Roberts. Together, they soon turned things around.

President Ford spent two days in Florida before the New Hampshire primary. Now, with only days remaining before Floridians voted, he and his wife abandoned joint appearances to cover more ground. The President toured cities and communities via a motorcade, from West Palm Beach southward and then around Sarasota and Coral Springs. Mrs. Ford toured schools in Miami, Melbourne, and Tampa. The Ford campaign continued to pound Reagan's "$90 billion package," adding to it remarks he made that seemed to suggest social security should be made voluntary and that its funds should be invested in the market. Both ideas made retirees in Florida nervous.

Reagan, meanwhile, opened a new foreign policy front, claiming that Ford had "neither the vision nor the leadership necessary to halt and reverse the diplomatic and military decline of the United States." Ford and Kissinger, he railed, had presided over "the loss of U.S. military supremacy." Raising the issue of the Panama Canal, Reagan suggested that Ford might have been duped by his State Department and others into secretly surrendering sovereignty of the canal zone to Panama. Slowly this line of attack swelled, cutting Ford's lead to fewer than eight points. Still, on election eve, Reagan's internal polls showed a 53-47 lead for Ford.

The Ford campaign, growing more confident, believed a solid win in Florida would knock Reagan out of the race. Rogers Morton, a chief White House political consultant, said of Reagan's campaign, "If it doesn’t end it here, it will be ended in Illinois or North Carolina." Election night saw the president win with 53 percent of the vote.

"They vastly underrated Reagan…. And they had him down. He was beaten until North Carolina…. And they allowed that to happen because they should have won it and they didn’t." So remembered Hal Bruno, who, in 1976, covered the election for Newsweek. President Ford had defeated Reagan in the New England conservative stronghold of New Hampshire and in Florida, the South's largest state. A week before North Carolina would vote, Ford handed Reagan another loss in the California governor's native state of Illinois. Along the way, Ford also notched wins in Massachusetts and Wisconsin.

Both campaigns stumbled into the Tar Heel State cash-strapped and disheveled. Reagan was $2 million in debt, and his staff bickered over how best to use the gifted orator. Ford, too, was financially pressed, and his campaign manager, Bo Callaway, was forced to step aside over charges he had used his public office in the Pentagon for private gain. This left Stu Spencer to run both the ground game and oversee administrative tasks in North Carolina. Spencer, by his own admission, was no administrator.

As both campaigns turned their attention to North Carolina, John Sears, Reagan's campaign manager, approached people on Ford's team, floating the idea that Reagan might bow out of the race. To make it possible for Sears to persuade Reagan, the Ford campaign would need to soften its attack, especially regarding his $90 billion dollar and social security remarks. Ford agreed to do this and focused his remarks in North Carolina on the improving economy and other achievements of his administration.

When members of his staff raised the possibility of Reagan ending his campaign, the Gipper's spine stiffened and he ramped up his attack. He sent thirty minutes of video of him lambasting Ford's foreign policy, especially détente and the Panama Canal, to television stations across North Carolina, most of which used it. Reagan traveled to North Carolina often, while Ford visited the state only twice. Reagan's efforts paid off. Ford's double-digit lead in the polls evaporated, and on election night both camps were stunned when Reagan won with 52 percent of the vote.

President Ford could take solace from the fact that Reagan earned only two more delegates in North Carolina than did Ford (28-26), leaving the President with 192 delegates to Reagan's 82. He could point to a recent national poll of Republicans that showed 56 percent supported Ford while only 32 percent supported Reagan. There was no escaping, however, that new life had been breathed into Reagan's campaign. He became only the third challenger to defeat an incumbent president in a primary election. Money flowed in, which allowed Reagan to take his message nationwide. Later, Dick Cheney would admit, "It was our most serious mistake, easing off in North Carolina."

Though stunned by their loss in North Carolina, the Ford campaign responded in April with impressive wins in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Then came Texas.

With cash he raised after his North Carolina victory, Reagan took his message nationwide, raising more funds. Knowing his chances were slim in the Midwest and Mid Atlantic primaries, Reagan poured his money into Texas, where he and Lone Star voters were more ideologically in step.

Ford had reason for confidence despite his North Carolina loss. In a poll taken before the Texas primary, Time Magazine reported that, nationwide, Republicans and independents favored the president over Reagan, 62% to 25%. Internal polls suggested that Reagan's advantage in Texas was narrowing. On April 29, Ford told a reporter in Houston, "We are making it very, very close, and I am always optimistic." Stu Spencer agreed and invested $800,000 in the Texas campaign. "If we could stop him here," Spencer said, "we had him." Victory wasn’t necessary, but Ford needed to win about a third of the state’s 96 delegates.

Still, warning signs flashed. Reagan's Panama charges resonated with Texans, and he turned up the heat by suggesting that the Ford administration was considering recognizing Communist Vietnam. When Kissinger left for a seven-nation tour in Africa to support majority rule and calm racial tensions, some of Ford's advisors objected, warning that Southern conservatives would react negatively. Ford, however, insisted Kissinger's trip could not be delayed.

To his Texas audiences, Ford touted his administration's efforts to "remove all price controls from oil and new natural gas" production. Ford also cited his right-to-work safeguards, among them his common situs picketing veto and his pledge to veto bills that threatened right-to-work laws in states like Texas.

Crossover voting, however, provided Reagan a trump card. George Wallace, the conservative Governor of Alabama, was faltering in his bid for the Democratic nomination for president, leaving his supporters to seek a like-minded candidate. For thousands of Wallace-supporting Texans, Reagan fit the bill. According to James Baker, the Texas Republican primary turnout drew more than twice its usual number, at least half of whom, he believed, were Wallace supporters.

On May 1, President and Mrs. Ford left the White House Correspondents Association Dinner early to watch election returns with friends. As quickly as the television was turn on, the race was over. Reagan, the media reported, was sweeping each congressional district and likely would take all 96 delegates. The President tried to lift his friends' sagging spirits. "This is just one primary. We are going to be back in there. We are going to win more primaries, and we are going to win the nomination."

Shaken by the Texas loss, the Ford campaign hoped to find some relief among the trio of states voting on May 4 – Indiana, Georgia, and Alabama. The President had his doubts about the southern states but was confident Hoosiers would arrest Reagan's momentum. "We think the situation is crucial, and we are making a maximum effort here in Indiana," Ford told reporters in Indianapolis, adding that he believed his chances were "very good."

So, Ford touted polls showing his substantial lead over Reagan among Republicans and independents. While Reagan ramped up his criticism of Ford's foreign policy, Ford pointed to April primary wins, calculating that voters saw through Reagan's critique. When Reagan attacked Ford's farm policies, he held forth his popular Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, a native of Indiana. Finally, banking on a months-old poll that gave him a better than twenty-point lead over Reagan in the Hoosier State, Ford found reason for confidence campaigning in his home state's neighbor to the south.

His confidence was misplaced. As expected, Reagan won Georgia and Alabama. The 36-point win in the Peach State and Reagan capturing all the delegates in George Wallace's home state were troubling enough. Ford and his team, however, were stunned by their loss in Indiana. "It shocked me as much as anything else that happened during the campaign," Ford later wrote.

Indiana allowed crossover voting and witnessed a record turnout. Reagan took 45 of its 54 delegates and in the minds of many was now the frontrunner. That night, facing reporters questioning his campaign strategy, a rattled Rogers Morton thundered, "I am not going to rearrange the furniture on the deck of the Titanic!" "Your comment didn’t help one damn bit," the President told his campaign manager.

A stoic Ford faced the media the day after, brushing aside questions suggesting foreign policy was responsible for the loss. The President reaffirmed his faith in Kissinger and instead pointed to the growing number of uncommitted delegates. To whom will these more than 300 people turn? "We think it's going to be a tough race," Ford declared. "But we expect to win, and we will be at Kansas City to do so and to carry on from there for a victory in November."

Still, as James Baker pointed out, "These were dark days at the PFC." The next week saw Reagan defeat Ford in the President's native state of Nebraska. Ford managed to win in West Virginia, but that gave him only one win in the last six primaries. A shellshocked campaign staff looked at May's calendar and drew a circle around the 18th, the primary in Michigan. "We lose that Michigan primary," Baker said, "and it’s all over."

"My prestige and credibility were on the line," the President later wrote, "and what I was fighting for was nothing less than survival as a candidate." Those heady days following early wins, where rumors swirled that Reagan might quit the race, ended with the stunning losses in North Carolina, Texas, and Indiana.

By mid-May, with Ford's campaign staff bickering about strategy, style, speechwriting, and ads, influential columnists Evans and Novak hypothesized that Reagan's lead among delegates made it the Governor's race to lose. Time Magazine piled on, warning Ford "could not even be sure of carrying his home state of Michigan," an assessment Ford's quarreling staff feared was true.

Michigan might be his home state, but Ford had never run a statewide campaign there. Michigan, too, permitted crossover voting, and Ford remembered 1972, when Governor Wallace won its Democratic primary aided by Republican votes. Might 1972 play in reverse now, in 1976? Might what happened only days before in Texas and Indiana replay itself in Michigan?

Ford traveled to Michigan on May 12, determined to fight back. "I want every person who is registered in this state who can feel confidence in what we have done to vote for me, whether they call themselves Republicans, Independents or Democrats," he told reporters in Detroit. On a rainy May 15, President and Mrs. Ford boarded The Presidential Express, a train made up of seven Amtrak cars, and traveled from Flint to Niles and then to Grand Rapids. Accompanied by state Republican party leaders and reporters, Ford became the first president to campaign by rail since Truman in 1948.

Ford returned to Washington to host a Bicentennial State Dinner for the President of France on May 17. At a reciprocal dinner on the following evening, an aide handed President Ford a message. Ford was on his way to "a landslide win." Returning to the White House, he learned his fellow Michiganders had handed him 55 delegates, reserving only 29 for Reagan. On top of that, Maryland, also voting that day, gave the President all of its 43 delegates. The race was far from over. Reagan still led in the delegate count. Ford, however, allowed himself to savor the moment. Speaking with reporters the next day, he said, "Yesterday was a great day, and I think it has restored the momentum that is needed for the remaining 12 primaries and the various convention states."

Michigan had thrown President Ford a life preserver. Now, in only three weeks, he and Reagan would square off in the final primaries, held in New Jersey, Ohio, and California, where 331 delegates waited. The two combatants traded victories in the nine primaries leading up to June 8, and by Ford's calculation he had inched ahead of Reagan in the delegate count. Ford stood uncontested in New Jersey. California was Reagan's home, and a winner-take-all, state. Ohio might prove the battleground.

Appearing on Face the Nation, on June 6, Ford touted his "underdog" status, claiming his "new momentum" was helping him "close the gap," even giving him, the President suggested, "an opportunity to win California."

It was all a smoke screen, part of a strategy, Stu Spencer later said, "to keep Reagan pinned to California, to keep him the hell out of Ohio." The better Ford's odds appeared in California, the less time Reagan would spend in Ohio.

Ford's campaign strategy notwithstanding, Reagan once again handed his opponent a sizable club. Speaking in Sacramento on June 2, Reagan answered a hypothetical question about quelling racial violence in the African nation of Rhodesia. He suggested American troops might be used. Facing criticism, Reagan changed "troops" to "mediators."

The Ford campaign's ad wing was in disarray, having fired one team only to be displeased the new firm's product. Indeed, Ford had instructed his staff to ease its criticism of Reagan as he weighed the importance of California and Ronald Reagan against his general election strategy. Handed this new issue, however, Ford quickly pivoted. His campaign produced a new ad highlighting Reagan's remarks and his retreat from "troops" to "advisors." It asked viewers, "What does [Reagan] think happened in Vietnam? When you vote Tuesday, remember: Governor Ronald Reagan couldn’t start a war. President Ronald Reagan could."

The ad ran in California and Ohio, and Reagan spent precious time defending himself rather than attacking Ford. It was, Ford said, "an albatross around [Reagan’s] neck;" another "ninety-billion-dollar plan," said a Ford advisor.

Ford won easily in New Jersey and Ohio. Though he lost California, his strategy worked. "It was a very good day," Ford told the press the next morning. He now believed he was within 150 of the 1,130 delegates needed to secure the nomination. The primary contest was finished. Each candidate now turned his attention to the remaining convention states, where Ford admitted he was less well prepared to fight than was Reagan.

At a meeting on June 1, Richard Cheney warned senior staff that the campaign would not be over when the three remaining primary states cast votes on June 8. Though President Ford would lead in the delegate count, he would be short of the number needed to win on the first ballot at the national convention. To earn the remainder, they would have to concentrate more carefully on the handful of states that used conventions to select candidates.

It was, Ford admitted, a "mistake," and a "very nearly fatal" one, that the President Ford Committee "had done a terrible job organizing in those states." The presumption that Ronald Reagan would be defeated in the primaries had been proven wrong, and now the President's campaign was left scrambling to play catch up.

Reagan's team had worked hard to succeed in the convention states. Normally, Republican caucus meetings would be attended by party faithful, inclined to support an incumbent Republican president. Because so few people attended these caucus meetings, however, a challenger could upset it with careful planning and a cadre of loyal followers. Reagan's supporters had pulled this off most notably in the moderate states of Washington and New Mexico, both of which Ford expected to win yet lost.

Missouri would choose the final 19 of its 49 delegates at the state convention in Springfield. Of the 30 already apportioned, Ford had captured 15 and Reagan 12; three were uncommitted. Ford's team and his state organizers agreed that a visit by the President to the Missouri delegation would clinch a win for Ford.

James Baker, responsible for keeping delegates pledged to President Ford from straying, flew with Ford to Springfield. "I remember that the President was very confident that we were going to sweep the at-large delegates," Baker later said. Ford already had placed personal calls to ten of the nineteen. At the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge, Ford met with delegates and asked for their support. He then spoke to over one thousand conventioneers gathered in the Exhibition Hall before flying back to Washington.

His efforts failed. "We should have counted better," one Ford organizer said. As a demonstration of the work still needed to craft a better operation for convention states, those responsible for counting votes had failed to consider that Reagan's voters had far outnumbered Ford's in one of Missouri's congressional districts, skewing Reagan's support at the state convention. Reagan earned eighteen of the nineteen delegates, the last given to Ford, as one reporter noted, "in a face-saving gesture to preserve some sort of unity."

Mississippi Republicans caucused in April 1976, selecting thirty delegates and thirty alternates to send to the national convention. The delegates were committed to neither candidate. Clarke Reed, the state's Republican party chairman, figured the race would be over before the convention began, and the Mississippi delegation would simply cast its votes as a bloc for the winner.

Reed was described by various reporters as "a colorful and eminently pressurable man," ideologically aligned with Reagan, but one who "couldn’t bring himself to go … against a sitting Republican president." Reagan's campaign coordinator for the South, David Keene, believed Reed had pledged Mississippi's thirty votes to Reagan, provided Ford had not won the race before the national convention. By June, though Ford was leading in the delegate count, Reed's pledge seemed solid, and Reagan was claiming Mississippi's thirty delegates as his.

After Ford's disappointing performances in North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, his campaign "despaired of winning support anywhere in the Deep South," Ford recalled, and focused its attention elsewhere. One man, however, identified "sleepers" among the Mississippi delegates. Harry Dent, Ford's southern coordinator, understood that Reed had selected his delegation not by ideology but as a reward for their work for the party. The younger members, though fewer in number, were more moderate and were open to supporting the President.

Reed discounted ideology because his delegates were restricted by "unit rule," meaning all were bound by majority rule to cast their votes as a unit. Dent knew, however, that unit rule itself could be set aside by majority vote, and in a race where every delegate mattered, efforts here could prove rewarding. Dent worked with Richard Cheney, urging Mississippi delegates to send telegrams to the White House asking President Ford to meet with them.

Sensing unrest among his delegates, Reed called for a meeting in Jackson, on July 25. Keene, Dent, and Cheney address the delegates. At its end, neither the Reagan nor Ford bloc had enough votes, and the delegation reaffirmed its commitment to remain undecided. They did, however, extend an invitation to President Ford to meet with them.

Unknown to anyone else at the meeting, Keene and Reed had met earlier. Keene told Reed that Reagan's hold on delegates was slipping and that a bold move was needed. Reagan soon would announce Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania as his vice-presidential pick.

When Reagan's decision was announced on July 26, Ford was stunned. By choosing a liberal Republican, Reagan hoped to pull delegates from Ford in northeastern states. Instead, he upset his conservative base. Taking advantage of that, Ford ramped up his lobbying of Mississippi's delegates. Cheney lobbied Reed, and on July 28, Ford spoke with Reed. Rather than ask for his endorsement, Ford "thanked Clarke for what he was going to do for (Ford)," Cheney said.

Then on July 30, President Ford flew to Jackson. He met with the Mississippi delegation and attended a fund raiser hosted by Reed. He would continue to court them at the convention in Kansas City where unit rule would be broken, and Ford would earn 16 of their 30 votes.

The Republican Primaries


The Republican Primaries



Vice President Nelson Rockefeller meets with President Ford and submits a letter (with public release) to explain his decision not to run as Vice President.
  View Letter (PDF)


Jack Stiles writes a critical evaluation of the President Ford Committee.
  View Evaluation (PDF)


Wayne Valis from the Public Liaison Office states that Ronald Reagan's "attack strategy" indicates that he is not likely to drop out of the race.
  View Document (PDF)


President Ford Committee Chairman Bo Callaway sends an evaluation of the staff and organization of the President Ford Committee to President Ford.
  View Evaluation (PDF)


White House political aide Gwen Anderson provides an analysis of Ronald Reagan's address.
  View Analysis (PDF)


"An Explanation of the Reagan Victories in Texas and the Caucus States".
  View Explanation (PDF)


"Electability" memo written by President Ford Committee staff members Rob Quartel and Ralph Stanley.
  View Memo (PDF)


Unattributed press background briefing about the campaign with a senior campaign official (President Ford Committee political office director Stu Spencer).
  View Press Briefing (PDF)

The Republican Primaries


Primary Campaign TV News

Ford Primary Commercials

President Ford's Remarks at Flint Amtrak Station during Whistle-Stop Tour of Michigan

Ronald Reagan's campaign speech "To Restore America"