Nixon was one of several viable contenders for the nomination. Moderates supported George Romney and later Nelson Rockefeller, while Ronald Reagan bid for conservative support. Nixon, situated as a centrist, had to dispel notions that he was a loser and then build a coalition consisting of professional party politicians, personal loyalists, and groups from both the moderate and conservative wings of the party. Nixon's tactical skills again brought success. He made a deal with Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, promising the South that he would appoint "strict constructionists" to the federal judiciary, name a southerner to the Supreme Court, oppose court-ordered busing, and pick someone acceptable to the South for the vice presidency. With this deal set, Nixon was able to win much southern conservative support and head off Reagan. A series of successes in primaries dispelled the loser image, and his standing in the preconvention polls indicated he could win the election, thus undercutting Rockefeller's premise that to back Nixon was to concede the election.
The election results put Nixon in the White House, but under inauspicious circumstances. The third-party candidacy of George Wallace left Nixon with only 43 percent of the vote, hardly a popular mandate. Nixon received 31.7 million popular votes (301 electoral votes); Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, won 30.8 million votes (191 electoral votes); and Wallace's American Independent party drew 9.4 million votes (46 electoral votes). Nixon won what political scientists call a deviating election—that is, one in which the advantage in party identification remains with the party that lost the election. In Congress, Democrats enjoyed a 57-43 advantage in the Senate and a 243-192 advantage in the House, with Republicans picking up just five House seats to go along with their gain of six in the Senate. Nixon would face a Congress controlled by the opposition and could not rely on a party-based legislative strategy. Instead, he would have to put together shifting coalitions: sometimes center-right, linking most Republicans with the southern Democrats to pay off his debts to the South or to support his foreign policies, and sometimes center-left, with moderate Republicans joining liberal Democrats to pass his own version of modern and progressive Republican social welfare, economic, and environmental legislation. At least in domestic affairs, the Nixon presidency promised to be eclectic and unorthodox.
Nixon never improved on this weak political position. His 1972 victory over George McGovern, with 59.7 percent of the vote, provided him with the support of the "Silent Majority" or "Middle America," as he called it, but he did not lead his party to victory. There were no appreciable changes in Democratic advantages in party identification and voter registration. In 1970 midterm elections the Republicans picked up two Senate seats but lost twelve in the House, and Nixon's strident campaign speeches contributed to this disaster, although the president claimed that he had won an "ideological majority" in the Senate. In 1972 the party lost the two Senate seats but regained the twelve in the House. By 1974 the Watergate investigations (see below) left the party in shambles: Republicans lost four Senate seats and forty-nine House seats, and held less than one-third of governorships and state legislative seats. Republicans did not make a comeback until 1978 and 1980.