Gerald Ford took over for Nixon after Watergate, but was never elected as Vice President, instead taking over the off of vice president after Spiro Agnew resigned. Therefore, while he was the sitting president, he found himself the target of a wave of conservative activism who saw him as too centrist or even liberal for the party. Ford was ultimately challenged by the former Governor of California, President of the Screen Actors Guild, and movie star, Ronald Reagan.
Ford’s own Vice President, former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, was a Dartmouth ’30, economics major, and brother at Psi Upsilon. He is the namesake for the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. On November 4th, 1975, Rockefeller announced that he would not run for re-election as Ford’s running mate, going on to decline the possibility of a run of his own. On the 16th, Reagan officially announced his intentions to run for President.
Following Watergate, the Democratic Party saw its best electoral results since the Great Depression, spurring more and more candidates to eye a possible run for the White House. Congressman Mo Udall was the first to announce his campaign on November 23rd, 1974, followed one month after by outgoing Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter on December 12th. More candidates announce through 1975 and the winter of 1976, with Senator Frank Church’s announcement on March 18th, 1976 (noticeably after the New Hampshire Primary) being the last one.
Ultimately, the Democratic field in 1976 would have fourteen major candidates with political experience. Six of these contenders were senators: Birch Bayh of Indiana, Lloyd Bentson of Texas, Richard Byrd of West Virginia, Frank Church of Idaho, Fred Harris of Oklahoma, and Henry Jackson of Washington State. Governors Jerry Brown of California, Terry Sanford of North Carolina, Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania, and George Wallace of Alabama would join this crowd, as well as DC Delegate to Congress Walter Frauntroy and Former vice-presidential nominee and diplomat Sargent Shriver.
The Iowa Caucus were held on January 19th. On the Republican side, Ford held off Reagan by a margin of 2.8 points – 45.3% to 42.5%. While the Democrats would have a few more contests before reaching New Hampshire, this was the last contest for the Republican candidates before New Hampshire, and while it established the President as the frontrunner, it further established Reagan as a legitimate contender for the nomination.
Amongst Democrats, the plurality of delegates, 37.2%, would remain unpledged to any particular candidate. Out of actual candidates, Governor Carter received the most support with 27.6%. He was trailed by Senators Bayh with 13.2% and Harris with 9.9%. The rest being split amongst other candidates.
On February 7th, Oklahoma was actually the next state contest in the primary. 40% of this state remained uncommitted, while again Governor Carter won amongst committed candidates 18.5%, edging out Senator Harris’s 17%, Governor Bentson’s 12.8%, and Governor Wallace’s 10.4%.
Between January 24thand February 21st, a series of caucuses were held in Mississippi. While the official numbers unreported, out of nineteen delegates, nine went to Wallace, four went to Carter, and three to Shriver, while the final three remained unpledged.
The New Hampshire Primaries that year were held three days after Mississippi on February 24th. Again, Governor Carter won over the state with 28.4% of the vote. He was trailed by Congressman Udall’s 22.7%, Senator Bayh’s 15.2%, Senator Harris’s 10.8%, and Ambassador Shriver’s 8.2%. All other candidates’ results hovered around or below 2%.
Similarly, the Republican results were not, on their face, an upset. President Ford received 49.4% to Reagan’s 48%. While Ford won the election, Reagan continued to close in on the President, in a state that was expected to be less receptive to Reagan’s more religious and further-right message than the more western state of Iowa.
A coalition of Democrats would go on to nominate Governor Carter with 40.2% of all primary votes, which, while not a majority almost tripled second-place-finisher Governor Brown’s 14% of the vote. Although he faced one of the most talented fields in Democratic primary history, Carter looked outside of his primary opponents to nominate Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale.
Reagan would not win a state primary until for another month, until finally pulling ahead in North Carolina on March 23rd. Ultimately, Reagan earned 45.9% of primary votes to Ford’s 53.3%. Despite cries from Republicans to nominate Reagan as Vice President, Ford would choose to nominate Kansas Senator Bob Dole.