On the second day of the highly contested 1976 Republican National Convention, it was still far from clear which candidate the party delegates intended to choose: sitting president Gerald Ford or his challenger, former actor and California governor Ronald Reagan. Amidst this tight, raucous political battle, a scuffle broke out between the two camps—over a campaign sign—and reporters packed around then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, trying to get a sense of what happened.

“Somebody came by, who none of us knew, and just told [chairman of the New York delegation] Dick Rosenbaum that if he didn’t get that sign back, he was going to rip out the phone,” Rockefeller told reporters on the convention floor.

The encounter had started when a Reagan supporter’s sign had ended up in Rockefeller’s hands. That Reagan supporter, Jack Bailey, accused Rockefeller of taking the sign, putting it under his feet and refusing to return it. (Rockefeller claimed he took the sign because he thought Bailey was handing it to him.) In retaliation, Utah delegate Douglas Bischoff allegedly ripped out the New York state delegation telephone Rockefeller was using, causing security guards to remove Bischoff from the convention floor.

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The outburst highlighted the tense, combative atmosphere between the Ford and Reagan camps during the 1976 Republican convention at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri. In addition to the phone incident, there was an argument about whether one of Ford’s sons had dumped trash or confetti onto Reagan supporters. At one point, according to an oral history by Politico, things got so tense that when a Ford-leaning delegate fell and seemed to have broken her leg, his camp scrambled to get a doctor to splint her leg with campaign programs so she could stay on the floor and vote. 

Although Reagan ultimately lost the nomination, his battle against Ford—who lost the election that November to Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter—helped propel the former California governor to the top of the party ticket four years later.

Reagan Already a Far-Right ‘Darling’

Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, 1976 Republican National Convention
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Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan shakes hands with a supporter in this 1976 Los Angeles, California, photo leading up to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City.

Primary challenges to sitting presidents are unusual, since incumbents usually have strong support within their party. But Gerald Ford’s situation was different.

Unlike every other president in U.S. history, Ford was never elected president, or even vice president. Richard Nixon appointed Ford as his VP in December 1973 after his former number two, Spiro Agnew, resigned over a financial scandal. When the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to step down in August 1974—less than a year after Ford became VP—the former House minority leader became the country’s first unelected president.

Which meant that 1976 was Ford’s first presidential campaign. Nationally, his pardoning of Nixon for crimes related to Watergate had hurt his standing with voters. Even worse, he lacked strong support within the Republican Party: He had neither a strong coalition like Nixon, nor a following like Reagan had been drawing since the 1960s.

Reagan, who first ran in the Republican presidential primaries in 1968, was seen in party circles as the heir to the ultra right-winger Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 campaign had ended in debacle, says Stephen F. Knott, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and previous co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. “Reagan was clearly the darling of the Goldwater conservative wing of the party,” he says. “And in that sense had much more of an ideologically fired-up base [than Ford].”

After leaving office as governor in 1975, Reagan developed “a radio presence in a way that really puts him in the public consciousness as a conservative voice in America,” says Russell Riley, co-chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program. By the time Reagan arrived at the RNC on August 16, 1976, he was a nationally known conservative leader who’d appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. And he trailed the sitting president by fewer than 100 delegates.

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A Convention Floor Challenge to a Sitting President

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Then-candidate Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford eye each other at a podium during the GOP National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, August 1976.

Neither Reagan nor Ford had enough delegates to secure the nomination at the start of the 1976 convention, so they went to work fighting over the remaining ones.

“Ronald Reagan had all the cards in terms of ideological preferences among the delegates,” Knott says. Yet “Gerald Ford had all the practical goodies: the potential trips on Air Force One and dinners at the White House and even perhaps patronage appointments.” At a clear disadvantage, “the Reagan people are sort of flailing about” for something to help them.

One of the Reagan team’s tactics was to try to force Ford to name his vice presidential nominee at the beginning of the convention. Reagan himself had made the unusual move of naming his intended running mate in July, something candidates usually only did at the convention after they secured the nomination. His selection of Senate moderate Richard Schweiker was supposed to win over uncommitted moderates. Instead, it angered party extremists like Jesse Helms, known for his long support of segregation and opposition to civil rights.

At the convention, Reagan attempted to change the official rules to force Ford to name his running mate before the party picked a nominee. Rockefeller, an unpopular vice president, had announced the previous year that he wouldn’t be Ford’s running mate in the 1976 election; and it appears Reagan was hoping Ford would pick another unpopular running mate, shifting heat away from Reagan’s choice. The attempt to force Ford to name someone was a desperate, last-ditch effort—but the rules change didn’t happen.

Another tactic Reagan’s team used was to influence the party platform in order to give delegates an idea of what they could expect from Reagan as president. Reagan’s team won a lot of fights about platform contents. As a result, “the party platform comes out basically condemning the foreign policy of the incumbent president and his secretary of state,” Knott says.

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“The majority of those Republican delegates, including a lot of Ford delegates, despised [Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger,” he says. “After having witnessed the debacle in Vietnam, and witnessing what they considered to be a lopsided foreign policy that favored the Soviet Union—those all played into Reagan’s hands. And he used those, I think, to great effect at the convention to try to win over some wavering Ford delegates.”

Ford ultimately won the nomination over Reagan by a narrow margin: 1,187 to 1,070. In an interview for the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation’s oral history project, journalist and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon speculated that “if there had been a secret ballot, Reagan would have won and been the nominee.” Stuart Spencer, the Ford campaign’s deputy chairman for political organization, also speculated that some Ford delegates really would’ve preferred Reagan. “We had four delegates in that Kansas City hall that were in tears, crying when they voted for Gerald R. Ford,” he said in an interview for the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program. “Their first choice was Ronald Reagan, but we owned them for some practical, pragmatic patronage thing, or something we pulled on them.”

Ford’s general election loss to Carter in November 1976 further strengthened Reagan, who continued to build his brand as a conservative radio commentator between then and the next election. In 1980, 12 years after his first Republican presidential primary, Reagan clinched the party’s nomination, and then the presidency, in a landslide.