Lesson Plan

1976 Republican Convention: Ford vs Reagan


This six-minute video explores the 1976 Republican National Convention, one of the most dramatic and irregular conventions in modern presidential history. Unlike nearly all modern conventions, in which the nominee has secured the nomination months before the convention begins, the struggle between California Governor Ronald Reagan and incumbent President Gerald R. Ford carried all the way into the convention hall, as the floor managers for each candidate fought for control over the party. The video is useful for lessons showing students what an openly contested convention looks like, and would fit in well with any sequence of lessons focused on the process for electing presidents.


  • How the Republican Party was ideologically divided in 1976.
  • How candidates and their campaigns pursue the votes of delegates during an openly contested convention.
  • How the powers of incumbency grant advantages to an incumbent president seeking re-nomination.
  • Social Studies
  • Civics & Government
  • U.S. History
  • AP U.S. History
  • AP U.S. Government & Politics
  • Campaigns and Elections
  • Gerald R. Ford
  • Political Parties
  • Ronald Reagan
  • 1970s America
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

The process of political conventions can prove baffling, as the same qualities that make one candidate a loser at one convention, can make him or her a big winner at the next.

In 1976, conservative Republicans rebelled against the moderate in the White House – President Gerald R. Ford – and arrived in Kansas City loudly backing Ronald Reagan.

Establishment Republicans viewed the one-time Hollywood star and former governor of California as a political lightweight who would be lost without his cue cards.

But Reagan had blazed through the primaries, energized a populist base, and arrived at the convention fewer than 100 delegates short of President Ford for the nomination.

That set off a scramble for uncommitted delegates – and control of the party. To cull supporters, the Ford team even let Reagan forces shape the party platform, in hope it would convince conservatives they could work with President Ford.

The tactics paid off. Ford was nominated on the first ballot, then moved to further mend fences by inviting Reagan down to the podium to address the crowd.

After some hesitancy, Reagan accepted, gave a memorable speech that supported Ford and the party – and in the process kicked off his own campaign that would clinch the party’s nomination in 1980.

Essential Questions

  • In the 1976 Republican presidential primary, what were the ideological differences between Reagan and Ford?
  • How did the party establishment view Reagan? How did the populist base of the party view Reagan?
  • How did Ford’s convention managers create advantages and privileges for the delegates supporting Ford, and create disadvantages and problems for the delegates supporting Reagan?
  • How did Ford seek to unify the party after he won the nomination?
  • How did Reagan’s loss at the convention set up his victory four years later?

Lesson Procedure

  • Ronald Reagan is the most electorally successful Republican politician of the last 50 years, and yet he still wasn’t able to defeat the comparatively unpopular incumbent President Gerald Ford in the battle for this party’s nomination. What does this teach us about the power of incumbency? In seeking his party’s nomination, what advantages does a president have over challengers?
  • In 1968 and 1980, the Democratic National Convention contained extensive political fighting over who the nominee would be, and what the party platform would be. In both cases, the Democrats lost the election in November, just as the Republicans lost the general election in 1976. What’s your hypothesis as to the relationship between in-fighting at conventions and electoral failure in November?
  • What agenda does the media have in creating news coverage of a convention? How is this agenda different from the agenda of the parties staging the convention?
  • Do you think parties should continue having delegates and conventions, or do you think the nomination should be decided through popular vote? What are the costs and benefits of moving to a popular vote system? What do we gain, and what do we lose? Do conventions play a useful enough role in our democracy to justify their continued existence?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "Lessons from the 1976 Republican Convention: Why Ronald Reagan Lost the Nomination"Retro Report

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.

Topic 5.3: Political Parties
Topic 5.8: Electing a President
Topic 5.9: Congressional Elections
Topic 5.10: Modern Campaigns

Skill 1.E: Explain how political processes apply to different scenarios in context.

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