When: July 14-17, 1980
Nominee: Former California governor Ronald Reagan
The convention floor was electric. Thousands of Republican delegates, crowded onto the floor of Joe Louis Arena, eagerly trading tips and gossip. Was it really possible, they asked? Would Ronald Reagan put Gerald Ford on the ticket?
It seemed ridiculous to contemplate. Ford and Reagan had fought bitterly for the nomination just four years earlier in Kansas City, many delegates knew. Ford was the sitting president then, forced to waste time and resources defeating the Reagan challenge. Even after losing the race, Reagan had fouled things up, providing only tepid support for Ford, who lost the fall election.
Each man distrusted the other. Yet in Detroit the stars seemed to be lining up.
Polls helped explain why. Reagan had breezed to the GOP nomination that spring, handily beating Sens. Bob Dole and Howard Baker, George H.W. Bush and other candidates. Bush had hung on the longest but admitted reality in May and dropped from the race.
Yet Gallup polls showed Reagan lagging behind incumbent Jimmy Carter — seven points behind — as of June. Worse, an independent candidate, Republican Rep. John Anderson of Illinois, claimed 20 percent of the vote in those same polls, posing a further threat to Reagan’s candidacy.
Reagan’s war room knew why. American voters still had doubts about the former governor, concerned about his lack of national experience. A seasoned vice president, they thought, could help soothe those worries.
But who? Staffers liked Bush — a congressman, CIA director, World War II hero. Reagan seemed cool to the idea, but his team saw few alternatives.
Until the days before the Detroit convention.
Reagan aides quietly raised the idea of a Reagan-Ford ticket with the former president’s brain trust. Ford had briskly rejected the idea earlier, but both sides sensed they should give the talks a try. Some were already calling it a dream ticket.
“We all got swept away with the idea,” Reagan later told reporters Jack Germond and Jules Witcover.
Private talks between Reagan and Ford poured more fuel on the fire. Ford seemed hesitant, aides said later, but wouldn’t flatly rule it out. He wanted assurances that his role would be more than ceremonial — he’d been vice president before.
Reagan was intrigued. It could work, some said. There were vague ideas about specific roles. Maybe Ford could take part of the budget, for example. A role with foreign affairs, perhaps.
Yet the more they talked, the more it became clear to both sides that an agreement could not be reached. Reagan was running for president, after all — he could hardly cede powers to any ticket mate, no matter how important. Misunderstandings and anger might prove toxic.
The delegates knew none of this at the time. Ford will join the ticket, they whispered.
In Detroit to anoint Reagan, the delegates sensed they might be witnesses to a historic, unexpected event — one that would ensure a victory over the dreaded Carter.
So the grapevine electrified. Reagan will come to the hall early, some said, to announce the pick. Ford will be with him.
Then Ford appeared on television with Walter Cronkite of CBS, openly discussing the veep talks. He would not be a figurehead, Ford told the newsman. He’d have to have a real job with real responsibilities.
The interview fed the Ford rumors, but it astonished the Reagan team. The soon-to-be-nominee himself now understood it wouldn’t work, Witcover and Germond later wrote.
That night, Ford quietly withdrew. Reagan asked Bush to join the ticket, and the Texan accepted.
In the days after the convention, many Republicans saw the Ford-on-the-ticket saga as a setback for the Reagan team. Their worries were only partly assuaged later by the Democrats’ own convention problems involving Carter and Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Years later, though, many saw the episode as proof of Reagan’s keen political instincts. His dalliance with Ford calmed concerns in the center of the Republican Party while cementing conservatives’ control of the GOP’s machinery. And Reagan showed the strength and smarts to walk away from a bad deal, even one he wanted badly.
When the Republicans left Detroit in 1980, their party belonged to Reagan. In one way or another, that’s been true ever since.