The 1976 election cycle included several "too close to call" moments for the Republicans. The race for the GOP nomination between President Gerald Ford and former California Governor Ronald Reagan, leader of the party's conservative wing, was not resolved in the primaries. Neither entered the 1976 Republican convention with enough votes to clinch the nomination. After numerous maneuvers and arm-twisting, Ford squeaqed out a nomination victory by just 117 delegate votes. Then Reagan gave a magnificent concession speech, and there was a palpable sense among the delegates that they had nominated the wrong guy.
Of course, if Reagan had been nominated, he would have had a more difficult time quashing the rising star of Democrat Jimmy Carter than he did in 1980, when incumbent Carter was beleaguered by the Iranian hostage crisis and a bad economy.
And if Reagan had won the presidency in 1976, his reputation today would probably be far different, and not nearly as successful. The nascent conservative movement had not solidified in 1976. There were no tax revolts, no calls for "supply-side economics," nor was there a religious right political movement -- things that fueled his 1980 candidacy. He might have edged out Carter, but once elected, he would have faced different obstacles than he did in 1981.
Dominic Sandbrook has a clever piece on what would have happened if Ronald Reagan had edged out Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, and beat Jimmy Carter for the presidency that year. Sandbrook contends Reagan would have been perceived as a disaster as president 1977-81, and would have lost badly to Ted Kennedy in 1980. But because he ran successfully in 1980, he appeared to be on top of events 1981-89, and was perceived to be a good president instead of a bad one.
President Ford in 1976 lost to Carter by just 1.7 million votes -- 50.1% to 48%. His gaffe in the debates, claiming that Poland was not under the domination of the Soviet Union, offended Reagan Cold Warriors who thought Ford's detente policy was soft-headed, not tough-minded. It cost him a week of bad press reviews and may have cost him the election. What if Ford had quickly corrected himself and gone on to win the 1976 election? Jeff Greenfield, in "Then Everything Changed," offers a plausible account of how that would have changed history.