“Nibbled to Death by Ducks”
Ronald Reagan insisted that it wasn’t his fault.
In July of 1976, Jimmy Carter emerged from the Democratic National Convention ahead in the polls against President Gerald Ford by a record thirty-three percentage points. By November, Ford had staged a monumental comeback. But it was not monumental enough. Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States with 50.08 percent of the popular vote, and 55 percent of the electoral college.
What had stopped Ford just shy of the prize? In newspaper columns, radio commentaries, and interviews all through the rest of 1976 and into 1977, Reagan blamed factors like the Democrat-controlled Congress, for allegedly holding back matching funds owed to Ford’s campaign. And All the President’s Men, the hit Watergate movie from spring, which Warner Bros. had rebooked into six hundred theaters two weeks before the election, for reminding voters of the incumbent’s unpopular act of pardoning Richard Nixon after Watergate. And even the United Auto Workers, for calling a strike that autumn against the Ford Motor Company—sabotaging the economy to boost Jimmy Carter, Reagan claimed.
Ronald Reagan blamed everyone and everything, that is, except the factor many commentators said was most responsible for the ticket’s defeat: Ronald Reagan.
He had challenged Ford for the nomination all the way through the convention, something unprecedented in the history of the Republican Party. Then, critics charged, he sat on his hands rather than seriously campaign for the ticket in the fall. If Ford had pulled in but 64,510 more votes in Texas and 7,232 more in Mississippi, he would have won the electoral college; or 137,984 more in Kentucky and West Virginia plus 35,473 from Missouri; or if he had won Ohio, where he came but 5,559 short, while adding either Louisiana, Alabama, or Mississippi, which Ford lost by less than two points—all of these states where Reagan had droves of passionate fans. But according to one top Republican operative, “the only effective campaign work done by Reagan was for Carter, whose ads featured Reagan’s primary attacks against Ford.” “Former Gov. Ronald Reagan has succeeded in running out the election campaign without being drawn into full, direct support for President Ford,” the New York Times had concluded—in order, the cognoscenti whispered, to preserve his own chances for 1980 should Gerald Ford lose.
Reagan howled his defense: “No defeated candidate for the nomination has ever campaigned that hard for the nominee,” but there had been “a curtain of silence around my activities.” This was not true. They were covered widely—under headlines like “Reagan Shuns Role in Ford’s Campaign.”
Now they said his political career was over. The Boston Globe’s Washington columnist joked that Richard Nixon was a more likely presidential prospect in 1980. About Reagan, the Times said, “At 65, he is considered by some as too old to make another run for the presidency.” Even right-wingers agreed—scouring the horizon, one columnist noted, “for a bright, tough young conservative whom Reagan might groom for the GOP nomination in 1980.” The Times also said that “political professionals of both major parties” believed the GOP was “closer to extinction than ever before in its 122-year history”: they controlled only twelve governorships, and according to Ford’s pollster Robert Teeter, the loyalty of only 18 percent of Americans voters. Clearly, the Newspaper of Record concluded, “if the Republican Party is to rebuild it must entrust its future to younger men.”