But the challenger insisted that he'd tapped into real anger among the ignored rank-and-file voters who wanted him to fight all the way to the party convention in July.
"The issue I sense," he told an interviewer, "is that the Empire is in decline. The establishment doesn't want to raise it." He used new technologies to reach small-dollar donors, and his allies noted that he'd "sharpened" his rival's message for a general election.
And so, in the spring of 1976, Ronald Reagan pressed on with his underdog quest to wrest the GOP nomination from the incumbent (albeit unelected) President Gerald Ford -- following a track that should look very familiar to the voters and pundits watching the out-of-left-field 2016 Democratic primary challenge by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Reagan found a narrow issue to focus voters' rage (a plan to return the Panama Canal to Panama) and a state that bought into his message, North Carolina -- just as Sanders used unease over trade deals to upset the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, in Michigan last month.
Over the second half of the 1976 primary season, the former movie actor won a string of victories and narrowed the delegate gap with Ford -- much as Sanders just did with a winning streak in late March. And, just as the Vermont ultraliberal independent is doing today, Reagan schemed to win uncommitted delegates and pry loose pledged ones, creating real suspense at the convention in Kansas City.
Not a defeat, but a leap forward
Yet, for Reagan, it wasn't enough to overcome Ford's early wins or the advantages of incumbency. But with the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that his narrow loss at the 1976 convention wasn't so much a defeat as the greatest leap forward in the long march of modern American conservatism.
By pressing his challenge to the very end, "the Gipper" set the stage not just for his own presidency four years later but for a new, right-leaning GOP orthodoxy on the size of government tax policy, and social issues such as women's rights and abortion.
Exactly four decades later, Sanders -- the avatar of so-called "democratic socialism" that would swing the national pendulum to the far left -- stands on the precipice of remaking the Democratic Party every bit as much as Reagan did on the far opposite side of the ideological spectrum. Indeed, the spirit of '76 -- 1976, that is -- looms large behind Sanders' determination to keep fighting Clinton all the way to Democratic confab in Philadelphia.
The decisions the Vermonter and his allies will make over the next three months -- in pushing for a more liberal party plank, in how Sanders addresses the convention delegates -- may determine whether the Sanders insurgency becomes the wild-haired face of American politics for years to come, perhaps long after Sanders himself has left the stage.
Sanders' supporters would surely find solace in the way that Reagan -- whose two-term presidency is today enshrined on the nameplates for airports, schools and boulevards -- was dismissed in the run-up to 1976, his first full-fledged presidential primary campaign.
Conservative thought-leader George Will wrote in 1974 that Reagan looked "too old" to be taken seriously, that he had "never demonstrated national appeal" and that his hardcore supporters were "kamikaze" ideologues.
But then, as in 2016, the punditocracy was fighting the last war. Will and other Beltway insiders still looked to Sen. Barry Goldwater's landslide loss in 1964 -- backed by Reagan in his televised speech "A Time for Choosing" -- as proof that an unvarnished conservative could never win a national election. But out on the campaign trail, a growing strain of the electorate -- battered by Vietnam, Watergate and the social upheavals of the 1960s -- was more receptive to Reagan's unyielding message of national restoration than it had been 12 years earlier. The allegations of a Panama Canal "giveaway" struck the right note with these voters.
"I think we'd be damn fools if we turned over the Panama Canal," Reagan said on the eve of his upset in North Carolina. "We built it. We paid for it. It's ours."
As Reagan went on to rack up huge wins in states such as Texas, the centrist Ford shifted to the right on issues such as restoring the death penalty, while jettisoning his liberal vice president, Nelson Rockefeller. Yet Reagan was able to fight on, in part because of revolutionary fundraising tactics -- especially advances in direct mail that allowed him to pinpoint his money appeals to true conservatives from coast-to-coast.
The payoff in Kansas City proved not to be Reagan's nomination but winning in platform fights over a "moral foreign policy" -- seen as a rebuff to Ford's détente with the Soviet Union -- and opposing abortion rights.
When Reagan told the wildly cheering delegates
that 100 years hence "[w]hether [people] have the freedoms that we have known up until now will depend on what we do here," it had already become his Republican Party. Although The New York Times reported as settled truth that the then-65-year-old Reagan would be "too old" to run in 1980, it was the vigor of his to-the-last-drop 1976 campaign that propelled him into the White House.
Sanders and Reagan
The similarities to what Democratic challenger Sanders has accomplished so far in 2016 are striking. Just like Reagan, the Brooklyn native was dismissed at the outset as a "protest candidate" who couldn't win by TV talking heads who didn't understand how 40 years of growing income inequality had primed the Democratic base for a candidate who embraces a form of socialism.
Then, his surprising strength caused the arguably centrist Clinton to move left, both in her rhetoric and on key issues such as blocking the Keystone XL pipeline or a Pacific trade deal.
In the meantime, Sanders' preference for mass rallies over staged photo-ops (a Reagan innovation) and his ability to tap into 2 million-plus small donors
has overturned all conventional wisdom on how to seek the Oval Office.
With roughly three months until the Philadelphia convention, the voices among the Democratic elite clamoring for Sanders to leave the race or "tone down" his message are arguably acting with self-interested ignorance of history -- of how Reagan's mirror-image challenge reinvented the Republican Party to dominate American politics in the latter 20th century.
Still, a Sanders rejuvenation of the Democrats will require hard work in the weeks and months ahead -- successfully inserting key progressive planks such as free public college tuition or a $15 living wage in the platform, and recruiting a new generation of like-minded activists to run for other offices in 2018, 2020 and beyond.
And what of the 2020 presidential race? The world has changed a lot in four decades. It would be the height of presumption to write off the now 74-year-old Sanders as "too old."