As the Republican presidential primary race has unfolded this year, commentators have noted that all the campaign contributions and televised ads mean little if a candidate doesn’t have an organization. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, failed to meet the somewhat stringent requirements to get on the Republican presidential primary ballot in Virginia, the state where he now lives.
President Gerald R. Ford nearly suffered the same fate in 1976. The Ford campaign, it turns out, came very close to missing the filing deadline for the Republican presidential primary in Michigan, Ford’s home state.
The little-known story turns up in the personal papers of Elly Peterson, the moderate Republican leader who is the subject of my recent book, Elly Peterson: ‘Mother’ of the Moderates. Peter Fletcher, then the Republican national committeeman from Michigan, also recounted it when he provided a videotaped oral history for the Michigan Political History Society. On March 15, 1976, four days before the primary’s filing deadline, Fletcher discovered that the Ford campaign had failed to file the necessary papers to get the incumbent president’s name on the Michigan primary ballot.
Peterson was an old friend of Fletcher’s; at that point, she was serving as the volunteer co-chair of ERAmerica, but had not yet been recruited to join the Ford campaign. Fletcher wrote and told her that when he had tried to alert the President Ford Committee, “the big legal brains said I was wrong. Sent them back to their law books and they called back confessing I was right.” Fletcher was asked to go to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and wait so that he could hand-deliver the appropriate papers after they arrived on a plane. He told Peterson they never arrived. He concluded cynically: “Renews my confidence in the strong hands of leadership in which we have entrusted the future of our nation.” Fletcher eventually received the affidavits, and said he delivered them with only two hours to spare.
Ford’s name went on the ballot, and he beat Ronald Reagan in the May 18 primary by a margin of 2 to 1, stemming a tide of primary defeats that might have ended his presidential election hopes right there. That night, he captured 55 delegates to 29 for Reagan. Reagan eventually lost at the convention by a margin of 1,187 delegates for Ford to 1,070 for Reagan. If Reagan had captured all 84 Michigan delegates in that topsy-turvy campaign year, it might have made the decisive difference in the race.
Stuart Spencer, deputy chairman of the Ford campaign, later said, “I have always maintained—and a lot of his right-wing friends think I am nuts—that Reagan was lucky he got beaten in the 1976 primaries. He would not have won that race: Jimmy Carter was going to carry the South, and without the South, Reagan could not have won in 1976. But come 1980, after Carter had basically had a bad presidency, Reagan was the beneficiary. He has always been a lucky politician.”
As this year’s Republican primary battle drags on, actually being on the ballot becomes more and more critical.