Even though Reagan came close to beating out President Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, he continued to focus on becoming President and I think Reagan would have seen the Vice Presidency as a major step in the wrong direction. If Ford had asked Reagan to be his running mate, I don’t think Reagan would have accepted. I don’t think Nancy would have allowed him to. Nothing could be gained for Reagan by serving as Ford’s running mate. The Vice Presidency was finally gaining influence and significance in the 1970s, but it wouldn’t have done anything to actually further Reagan’s Presidential prospects.
A Ford/Reagan ticket might have resulted in a victory, but Reagan wouldn’t really gain anything from that, either. Ford wouldn’t have been able to run for re-election in 1980 because of the 22nd Amendment (Ford had served more than two years of Richard Nixon’s unexpired term, so he would have been ineligible to be elected again had he won in 1976). But if Ford and Reagan had been elected together in 1976 and the Ford had a rough four years in office, Reagan would have been intimately connected with that Administration, giving his potential 1980 opponent something to strongly use to campaign against him with. He would have been pegged as the successor or as the continuation of that hypothetical Ford Administration. Anything like that would have been a huge risk for Reagan because part of the reason he challenged Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976 (besides believing that Ford wasn’t Conservative enough) was that Reagan was already 65 years old. In 1976! He was older than Nixon and Ford and a full six years older than John F. Kennedy. People forget about that — Reagan was worried, even in the 1970s, about whether his age would be an issue. Even if he had beaten Ford out for the GOP nomination in 1976 and been elected that year, Reagan would have been the second-oldest President ever inaugurated — and that was a full four years before he actually be did become President!
More than anything else, though, President Ford was pissed off in 1976 by the fact that Reagan challenged him (Ford), an incumbent President of the same party, and required Ford to expend energy and much-needed campaign funds just to get a nomination that is usually an automatic for an incumbent President. When Reagan notified Ford that he was going to seek the nomination that year, Reagan said he hoped it wouldn’t be divisive and Ford responded, “How can you challenge an incumbent President of your own party and not be divisive?”. The Ford/Reagan battle in the 1976 primaries really hurt Ford more than anything — even more than Ford’s controversial pardon of Richard Nixon or Ford’s big mistake in the second Presidential debate with Jimmy Carter when he stumbled and suggested that there was not Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. But the GOP primary battle allowed Carter to begin the general campaign with a huge lead over Ford and Ford came extraordinarily close to closing that gap and winning the election — with another week of campaigning, he likely would have beaten Carter. Ford genuinely believed that Reagan (and Reagan’s advisers) were to blame for the fact that Ford had to fight from so far behind against Carter. In interviews embargoed until after his death, Ford admitted, “It burned the hell out of me that I got the diversion from Reagan that caused me to spend an abnormal part of my time trying to round up individual delegates and to raise money.” Ford was also bothered by the fact that even after Ford clinched the Republican nomination, Reagan did very little to help him out during the general election. Recognizing that the focus of Reagan and his team immediately turned towards 1980 following the 1976 Republican National Convention, Ford said, “They didn’t give a damn whether I won or not because they were already planning to run in 1980.”
Gerald Ford was, by all accounts, one of the most good-natured, mild-mannered, polite, reasonable, and loyal politicians in American history. That’s one of the reasons that Congressional Democrats all but demanded that Nixon nominate Ford to fill the vacancy caused by Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation in 1973. Ford also knew that he needed a more Conservative running mate in 1976 because he and the Vice President that he had appointed, Nelson Rockefeller, were too moderate for his increasingly Conservative party. Ford dumped Rockefeller in favor of the more appealing (to the far right of the GOP) Bob Dole and, later in life, frequently mentioned that the biggest regret of his life was dumping Rockefeller from the 1976 ticket — not because of any disrespect towards Senator Dole, but because Rockefeller had served him well and Ford was ashamed that he had pandered so much in taking that action. But before he chose Bob Dole at the 1976 Republican National Convention, many Republicans pushed for Ford to choose Reagan as his VP and there was nothing mild-mannered or good-natured about President Ford’s response. When Reagan’s name was mentioned, he bluntly said, “Absolutely not. I don’t want anything to do with that son-of-a-bitch.”
So, to answer the rest of your question, yes, Ford likely would have been re-elected if Reagan had been his running mate. However, he likely would have been re-elected if Reagan hadn’t forced him to spend the spring of 1976 fighting for the Republican nomination even though he was the incumbent President.
And, yes, Ford was extremely depressed about losing the 1976 election, but he wasn’t suicidal. It was an understandably devastating defeat — George H.W. Bush has spoken of how devastated he was, too, upon losing the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. General Colin Powell recalled a conversation with Bush at Camp David after the 1992 election where Bush 41 was nearly in tears while telling General Powell, “Colin, it hurts. It really hurts. I just never thought they’d elect him.” It’s an unimaginable sadness for anyone who hasn’t actually been the most powerful person in the world and then had hundreds of millions of people decide, “No, we don’t want you anymore.” But Ford was not suicidal. Some people have suggested that he was in a dark place because it was his wife, Betty, who read Ford’s concession speech in 1976, but in actuality, Ford had been making non-stop campaign swings during the last days and hours of the ‘76 campaign and had completely lost his voice, so that’s why Betty Ford gave the speech as he stood nearby.
40th President of the United States (1981-1989)
Full Name: Ronald Wilson Reagan
Born: February 6, 1911, Graham Building, 111-113 Main Street, Tampico, Illinois
Political Party: Republican
State Represented: California
Term: January 20, 1981-January 20, 1989
Age at Inauguration: 69 years, 349 days
Administrations: 49th and 50th
Congresses: 97th, 98th, 99th, and 100th
Vice President: George Herbert Walker Bush (1981-1989)
Died: June 5, 2004, 668 St. Cloud Road, Bel-Air, Los Angeles, California
Age at Death: 93 years, 120 days
Buried: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley, California
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 15 of 43 [↓2]
There are many aspects of being President of the United States. First and foremost is the President as a political leader, Commander-in-Chief, chief executive of the federal government, and administrator of all of the departments which make up the Executive Branch. Yet, there is also the public relations role. A role which sometimes calls for inspirational leadership, motivational leadership, the skills for challenging Americans to be their best that is almost like the skills required of a great athletic coach. This part of the Presidency is almost a paternal role, and it is best exhibited in trying moments like the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger or the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. No one was better at this part of the Presidency than Ronald Reagan, and that means something in these rankings because it is indeed an important part of being President. Reagan wasn’t the best manager/administrator, but he was a rock star politically and, when the nation needed their President to make them feel like everything would be okay, Ronald Reagan was usually there to say the right things with his comforting voice and warm easy smile. That may not make you the best President and the metrics may not put him in the top tier, but something is to be said for someone who makes Americans feel good and strong and safe.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: Not Ranked
1990: Siena Institute: 22 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 25 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 11 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 6 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 6 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 10 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 18 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 8 of 40