On Aug. 19, 1976, a defeated Ronald Reagan delivered one of the most impactful speeches in political history, one that would not only set him up for a two-term presidency, but would also be heralded as the cornerstone of modern conservative principles.
In a 13-minute documentary titled "The Contested Convention," FiveThirtyEight
detailed how Reagan lost the 1976 nomination but won over the soul of the Republican Party with that impromptu 800-word speech
in a sweaty Kansas convention center.
In a stunning upset, Reagan pulled off a victory in North Carolina, and everything changed. Reagan would win primaries in the south and west, while Gerald Ford would win in the northeast and Midwest.
Then in July, CBS News, frustrated by false delegate counts from both sides, decided to count the delegates itself, and it found that Ford had 1,114 delegates and Reagan had 1,061.
"If Walter Cronkite said (that Ford was the winner), then it was a fact: If he makes that announcement, Reagan's campaign is dead," Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said in the documentary.
In a desperate move crafted to get delegates, Reagan announced a running mate: A moderate-liberal senator from Pennsylvania, Richard Schweiker.
The Reagan camp introduced Convention Rule 16-C, which, if passed, would have forced Ford to pick his VP before balloting for president. But it was voted down by a count of 1,180 to 1,068, and the move backfired.
Ford won the nomination, 1,187 delegates to Reagan's 1,070. But what would happen next would alter history — Reagan's speech.
Reagan's premise was of writing a letter to put in a time capsule for Americans to read in a hundred years, 2076:
"And suddenly it dawned on me, those who would read this letter a hundred years from now … will know whether we met our challenge. Whether they have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here.
"Will they look back with appreciation and say, 'Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom, who kept us now 100 years later free.'
"This is our challenge; and this is why here in this hall tonight, better than we have ever done before, we have got to quit talking to each other and about each other and go out and communicate to the world that we may be fewer in numbers than we have ever been, but we carry the message they are waiting for."
"The language that he used there became the founding language for this new conservative party that we still hear today," said David Firestone, managing editor of FiveThirtyEight.
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