As we enter the presidential primary season, a look back at the 1976 Republican Primary is appropriate, considering it was a pivotal moment in American conservatism. It is a presidential race that conservative writer Craig Shirley calls a “successful defeat.” While Ronald Reagan ultimately lost the nomination to incumbent President Gerald Ford, this race would end up transforming the conservative movement, the Republican Party, the country, and eventually the world.
Reagan came into the 1976 North Carolina primary having lost the first five consecutive primaries to Ford. The national party establishment was against Reagan, the media started to write him off, and his campaign was broke and in debt. Needless to say, the pressure to drop out of the race was nearly overwhelming.
Tom Ellis and then Senator Jesse Helms helped resurrect Reagan’s campaign from the dead. By spearheading a grassroots movement and focusing on Reagan’s conservative credentials, it led to a shocking upset in the Tar Heel State. Reagan’s victory meant it was the first time a sitting president had been defeated in a primary of a state where he actively campaigned. Many more primary victories for Reagan would follow.
During the race in the state, Reagan continually brought up the issue of the Panama Canal, following a rumor the Ford Administration was going to turn it over to Panama’s dictator. With heated energy and anger Reagan would repeatedly shout at every campaign stop, “It’s ours! We built it! We paid for it! And we should keep it.!” It was classic Reagan, and North Carolinians loved it.
Reagan also hit the administration hard on federal spending, government regulations, and being soft on Soviet aggression. He also attacked leaders in the other party, taking aim at Senator Ted Kennedy’s universal health care proposal. Reagan warned:
What the nation does not need is another workout of a collectivist formula based on an illusion promoting a delusion and delivering a boon-doggle. It is up to the private sector to provide answers in the onrushing health care political battle. If not, nationalized medicine will represent one more instance of surrendering a freedom by default.
Part of the reason for Reagan’s eventual loss showcased the extreme power of incumbency and Ford’s ability to raise his political game as well. Ford was again overshadowed however, when he invited Reagan down from his sky box at the GOP convention after Ford finished his acceptance speech to lead the party. Reagan delivered some highly inspirational off the cuff remarks, which is still considered one of his best speeches. It has been reported that horrified party activists on the convention floor gasped, “Oh my gosh – we nominated the wrong candidate.” Reagan was 65 years old at the time, some undoubtedly saw his remarks as a farewell to the party.
After the primary the political landscape in the United States changed. Jimmy Carter also ran against Ford as a Washington outsider, who sought to reform government. In addition he was a self avowed born again Christian, who promised to return a high degree of ethics to the oval office in the wake of Watergate.
But Carter’s enduring legacy was mismanaging the country and creating an election ripe for Reagan’s brand of conservatism. However, the 1976 campaign is where it all really started on the national level. Many Reagan biographers are correct in assuming without 1976, there would have been no campaign in 1980. The primary campaign in 1976 saw the power of conservative ideas on a national stage, and a reference to modern conservatism other than Barry Goldwater’s failed presidential campaign in 1964.
That Republican presidential candidates try to emulate Reagan only adds to his glory, but also creates an unrealistic expectation for themselves. But If conservatism is ever going to be revolutionary, anti-establishment, and popular again, the country and candidates will have to recapture some of the Spirit of 76.
[For a complete study of the 1976 Republican Primary Campaign and its significance check out Reagan's Revolution by Craig Shirley]