(NEW YORK) — The last time the fight for delegates was nearly as intense as during this year’s Republican presidential primary was back in 1976, when Ronald Reagan was first running for office and then-President Gerald Ford was fighting to hold on to the White House.
A contested convention — where no candidate secures a majority of candidates — was avoided this year when Donald Trump passed the key mark of 1,237, but 40 years ago, there wasn’t such a solution going into the convention.
At the time, neither Ford nor Reagan had secured the number of delegates needed to get that “presumptive” title ahead of time, meaning that there was some bitter fighting up until the end of the first roll call vote on the convention floor.
“In 1976, there was a matter of about 150 uncommitted delegates and also a lot of wavering delegates on both sides,” historian Craig Shirley told ABC News.
“Jim Baker, who was then Ford’s delegate wrangler, used everything he could — it was all legal of course — to attract the uncommitted delegates to support Ford on the first ballot in Kansas City,” where the convention was held, he said.
Trips to the White House during the primary and prime seating at bicentennial celebrations were used as wooing factors, according to Shirley.
“Ford was the incumbent president, and they have the majesty and the aura of the presidency, so they had to use [those] as inducements for uncommitted delegates,” said Shirley, whose book “Reagan’s Revolution” is about the 1976 election.
Political scientist David Karol also said that trips on Air Force One were used by the Ford camp to impress some wavering delegates.
At the time of Ford’s convention, the Federal Election Commission was only officially a year old, so even if there were any blurring of the lines, that likely had something to do with the fact that this was the first election in which there were any rules about wooing delegates at all.
“It really was silent about what you could do to attract uncommitted delegates or any delegates,” Shirley said.
For her part, Nancy Reagan didn’t forgive and forget the wooing tactics of the Ford administration even after her husband won two terms in office. She mentioned the old wounds in her 1989 memoir “My Turn,” writing that Ford brought “dozens of uncommitted delegates to the White House for lunches, cocktails, meetings and dinners.”
“To this day, I have never known the White House to be used by either party the way it was in this campaign. I was furious,” she wrote in the memoir, which was published in 1989. “The White House stands for something more important than partisan politics and uncommitted delegates — or at least it should.”
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