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What The 1976 GOP Primary Tells Us About 2016’s

Political journalists dream of a contested convention every presidential election. This year, it really seemed possible that Republicans would go into their convention without a nominee. Alas, it was not to be.

In 1976, though, it actually happened.

Republican President Gerald Ford, who ascended to the presidency after Richard Nixon resigned, faced a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan. What ensued was great political theater. Ford and Reagan traded victories during the primaries, and neither received a majority of delegates. Both entered the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, unsure of the outcome. Then the loser (Reagan) ended up getting the last laugh by setting the party’s ideological course for decades to come and ascending to sainthood in Republican politics.

The 1976 Republican primary and convention was such an exciting, consequential moment in U.S. political history that we just couldn’t resist making a short documentary about it:

When Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination

But an added benefit of revisiting the events of the 1976 is that it helps us better understand what happened in the 2016 primaries.

Consider Ted Cruz. Cruz, like Reagan, did best among more conservative voters. Cruz, like Reagan, also performed best in the West. Cruz won nearly every caucus, convention and primary west of Missouri before Trump became the presumptive nominee in early May. The problem was that, despite the heavy conservative Christian vote in the South, Cruz was defeated by Trump in nearly every state in that region. That’s very different than Reagan in 1976. He won a number of Southern states, including Arkansas, Georgia and North Carolina. Indeed, Reagan earned a slight victory in Indiana, which tends to vote like its Southern neighbors, nearly 40 years to the day before the state ended Cruz’s bid for the presidency.

Reagan’s run in 1976 marked a turning point for the Republican Party, which would go from a coalition based in the North (where Ford was strongest) to one based in the South and West (where Reagan did best). Cruz’s geographic support, though, was too limited. His weakness in the South pretty much doomed his candidacy.

The geographic shift in the GOP base also affected the type of candidates the party chose to lead it. From 1940 to 1976, almost every nominee who faced a competitive primary lived in the Eastern time zone and north of the Mason-Dixon Line at the time they ran for president. The only exceptions were Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960.1 But after Ford took the nomination in 1976, the next 36 years were filled with Republicans based west of Missouri. In fact, with the exception of Mitt Romney (who has roots in Utah and Michigan but lived in Massachusetts when he ran), not a single Republican nominee lived in the Eastern time zone and north of the Mason-Dixon line during this period.

Could Trump, who is as New York as it gets, be a signal that the Republican Party will start embracing nominees from outside the South and West again? Maybe.

Of course, the interesting thing about politics — as the events of 1976 demonstrate — is that it isn’t static. The next GOP presidential primary may bring a nominee from the South or West. Heck, maybe we’ll even get another contested convention.


  1. Nixon moved to New York after his failed bid for governor of California in 1962.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.