In each election, the candidates involved portray the race as the most pivotal election of all time. The supporters of Romney and Obama often claim that this is a critical juncture in American history and that we must be careful not to bungle it. Of course, the truth is that whichever candidate gets (re)elected, the nation will soldier on and survive.
That takes me to 1976. Perhaps this was a more significant election than previously assume. Let’s suppose that incumbent appointed President, Gerald Ford, defeats Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Ford was a moderate conservative. It is impossible to know how world events would have progressed, but let’s consider the presidents who come after Ford.
In 1980, Ford could stand for reelection again because he became President due to the resignation of President Nixon. Since he won his own election to President, the taint of never having been elected to the Executive Branch is removed. He is now a much stronger incumbent than he was in '76. Assuming now major difficulty, he would likely have withstood a challenge from Ronald Reagan for the GOP nomination. (Remember, Reagan nearly beat Ford for the nod in '76.) (As an aside, would the Iran hostage affair been as devastating for him as it was for Carter?)
So, relieved of a damaging primary fight, Ford wins reelection in 1980 (against whom? Mondale?) By 1984, Reagan would seem too old to be a first term President. I don’t see him getting the nomination; 1980 was his last chance. Now, the 1984 race is wide open with an ineligible GOP incumbent. Who are the candidates? Carter and Mondale are already losers; I don’t see them getting the Dem nomination. Of course, Nixon lost in 1962 and won the whole show in 1968, so maybe Carter is a possibility. Who does the GOP have at this point – Rockefeller?
Why does this matter? With a Ford win in 1976, the whole Reagan Revolution doesn’t happen. Reagan doesn’t have the opportunity to sell the GOP to the Religious Right. He doesn’t lead a “deficits don’t matter” administration and build the military-industrial complex into a budget-busting behemoth. Meanwhile, conservatives also don’t get Jimmy Carter to kick around as the “worst President ever.”
Could a Ford win in 1976 have prevented the hard-right current GOP?
Note: I turned 9 years old in October, 1976, so I have no adult recollection of these times. As a child, I favored Ford because he had experience in the job and Carter did not. My parents, Austin liberals, supported Carter.