Signs in 1976

The 2002 movie Signs is about a minister, Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson, who looses his faith when his wife dies in an automobile accident for apparently no reason. The story is about how this minister comes to see a greater, transcendent purpose in the loss of his wife. In the course of the movie the character Hess lays out two views of the world, when lights from UFOs, presaging an invasion, appear over Mexico City:

“People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign … evidence that there is someone up there watching out for them.

Group number two sees it just as pure lucky, happy turn of chance. I’m sure that the people in group number two are looking at those 14 lights in a very suspicious way. For them, this situation is a 50/50. It could be bad. It could be good. But deep down they feel that whatever happens … they’re on their own. That fills them with fear. Yeah. There are those people.”

But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one and they see those 14 lights and they’re looking at a miracle. And deep down they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. And what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs or sees miracles? Or do you believe people just get lucky? Or look at the question this way. Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”

For Reagan Conservatives (Is there another variety?), Craig Shirley’s new book Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All, offers powerful evidence for people in group number one — people who believe “that there are no coincidences.”

For most Reagan supporters, 1976 was a devastating year. Gerald Ford had squeaked by Ronald Reagan in the most contested Republican nomination process in contemporary memory to win the Republican nomination. Ford did not formally secure the nomination during the roll call of states at the convention until the West Virginia delegation, the second-to-last state in alphabetical order, cast their vote. Even worse, the conventional wisdom foresaw the marginalization of the Republican Party. Eric Sevareid, in an editorial piece on CBS News, argued that Republican Conservatives were killing the election prospects of Republicans. Others predicted that Republicans would soon go the way of the Whig Party from which they arose just prior to the American Civil War. The New York Times happily concluded that, “Mr. Reagan presumably grows too old to run again…” Jimmy Carter, who camouflaged himself in Conservative vocabulary to hide the soul of a Liberal, had just been elected president. It just doesn’t get any worse for Reagan Republicans.

Adding to this frustration was a certainty that but for a few small turns of chance, Reagan would have won the Republican nomination. If Reagan had won the New Hampshire primary, it would have changed the dynamics of the nomination process. Given the eventual extremely tight outcome, it is highly likely that a New Hampshire primary win would have given Reagan the nomination.

Shirley reminds us of just how close the New Hampshire primary was in 1976. Ford won unexpectedly by a little more than 1,000 votes. Reagan’s campaign made the tactical mistake of leaving New Hampshire a day early certainly costing Reagan votes. Moreover, 2,000 ballots were disallowed because the voters had selected all 24 Reagan delegates even though they were allowed to select only 21. The Reagan campaign had tried to limit the number of Reagan delegates on the ballot, but too many true believers were eager to be formal Reagan delegates and refused to pull themselves from the ballot.

There were a number of similar moments in 1976 that could have easily tipped the Republican nomination to Reagan. However, if Reagan had won the nomination there never would have been the speech when a victorious Ford prompted a Reagan to come to the podium and make extemporaneous remarks. There might never have been the moment when Reagan could speak directly to a Republican convention and seal both himself and Conservatism in their hearts. In a speech that was uncalculated, unprepared, and sprang free from Reagan’s heart, Reagan spoke of the challenge of our generation to stand up to forces of totalitarianism and for freedom. But for his nomination loss in 1976, Reagan might never have had the chance to explain that containment and coexistence with the Soviets was not enough; that “there is no substitute for victory.”

Had Reagan won the won the nomination in 1976, he probably would have lost the presidential election in the shadow of the Watergate scandal. There likely would not have been a Reagan presidency. The Republican Party may have remained mired forever in the limbo between Conservative and Liberal wings. Without a Reagan presidency, the liberation of the Russians and Soviet captive states might have required an additional generation, if it occurred at all. Without a Reagan presidency there might never have been the tax cuts that unleashed an economic boom that reduced inflation, slashed unemployment, and restored hope. But for a few small events, there would never have been a Reagan Revolution.

In 1976, Reagan sought to win a political nomination. He was denied, but as a consequence he later won a presidency that changed the world. Perhaps there are no coincidences.

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