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United States presidential election, 1980

The United States presidential election of 1980 featured a contest between incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter and his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, along with third party candidates, the independent John B. Anderson and Libertarian Ed Clark. Reagan, aided by the Iran hostage crisis and a worsening economy at home, won the election by a wide margin.

Background

Through the 1970s, the United States underwent a wrenching period of low economic growth, high inflation and interest rates, and intermittent energy crises. Added to this was a sense of malaise that in both foreign and domestic affairs the nation was headed downward. By the beginning of the election season, the prolonged Iran hostage crisis had sharpened public perceptions of a national crisis.

Similar to how Herbert Hoover had been blamed for the Great Depression in 1932, Jimmy Carter was blamed for most of the nation's woes, especially the Iran hostage crisis, in which the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeni publicly humiliated the US by burning American flags and chanting anti-American slogans, parading the captured American hostages in public, and burning effigies of President Carter. Many Americans saw Carter as an inept leader who had failed to solve the worsening economic problems at home, and had made the US look weak abroad. Carter, after defeating Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, attacked Reagan as a dangerous right-wing radical. For his part, Reagan, the charismatic former Governor of California, repeatedly ridiculed Carter, and won a decisive victory; in the simultaneous Congressional elections, Republicans won control of the United States Senate for the first time in 28 years. This win marked the beginning of the "Reagan Revolution."

Nominations

Democratic Party

Candidates

In the spring and summer of 1980 unemployment was high, inflation was on the rise, and in California, the gasoline supply was running out. The gas lines last seen just after the Arab/Israeli war of 1973 were back and President Carter was widely blamed.

The President’s approval ratings were very low -- 28% according to Gallup, with some other polls giving even lower numbers. In July Carter returned from Camp David to reshuffle his cabinet and give a televised address to the nation widely dubbed the "malaise" speech, though the word malaise was never used. While the speech caused a brief upswing in the president's approval rating, the decision to dismiss several cabinet members was widely seen as a rash act of desperation, causing his approval rating to plummet back into the twenties. Some Democrats felt it worth the risk to mount a challenge to Carter in the primaries. Although Hugh Carey and William Proxmire decided not to run, Senator Edward Kennedy finally made his long-expected run at the Presidency.

Ted Kennedy had been asked to take his brother's place at the 1968 Democratic Convention and had refused. He ran for Senate Majority Whip in 1969, however, and many thought that he was going to use that as a platform for 1972. But then came the notorious Chappaquiddick incident, in which Kennedy drove his car into a body of water and abandoned his female passenger, trapped in the car, who apparently survived for as long as twenty minutes before drowning, while Kennedy went about his business without informing anyone.

Kennedy refused to run in 1972, and again in 1976. Many suspected that Chappaquiddick had destroyed any ability he had to win on a national level. However, in the summer of 1979, he consulted with his family, and that fall, he let it leak out that because of Carter’s failings, 1980 might indeed be the year. Gallup had him beating the president by over two to one.

Kennedy’s official announcement was scheduled for early November. There was a prime time interview with CBS’s Roger Mudd and it was a minor disaster. Kennedy flubbed a number of the questions and couldn’t exactly explain why he was running, and the polls, which showed him leading the President by 58–25 in August now had him ahead 49–39. Then the hostages were taken in Tehran, Iran and the bottom fell out of the Kennedy campaign.

Carter’s approval ratings jumped in the 60-percent range in some polls, due to a "rally ‘round the flag" effect and an appreciation of Carter's calm handling of the crisis. Kennedy was suddenly left far behind. Carter beat Kennedy decisively in Iowa and New Hampshire. Carter decisively defeated Kennedy everywhere except Massachusetts, until impatience began to build with the President’s strategy on Iran. When the later primaries in New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut came around, it was Kennedy who won largely due to such impatience.

Carter was still able to maintain a substantial lead even after Kennedy swept the last batch of primaries in June. Despite this, Kennedy refused to drop out, and the 1980 Democratic National Convention was one of the nastiest on record. On the penultimate day, Kennedy conceded the nomination and called for a more liberal party platform in what many saw as the best speech of his career. On the platform on the final day, Kennedy for the most part ignored Carter.

The delegate tally at the convention was in part:

In the vice presidential roll call, Mondale was re-nominated with 2,428.7 votes to 723.3 not voting and 179 scattering.

The popular votes in the primaries were:

Republican Party

Candidates

As the 1970s came to a close, Former Governor Ronald Reagan was the odds-on favorite to win his party's nomination for president (after nearly beating incumbent President Gerald Ford just four years earlier). He was so far ahead in the polls that campaign director John Sears decided on an "above the fray" strategy. He did not attend many of the multicandidate forums and straw poll events held in the summer and fall of 1979.

However, George Bush, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and chairman of the Republican National Committee, taking a page from the George McGovern/Jimmy Carter playbook, did go to all the so-called "cattle calls", and began to come in first at a number of these events.

In January 1980, the Iowa Republicans decided to have a straw poll as a part of their caucuses for that year. Bush's hard work paid off, and he defeated Reagan by a small margin. Bush declared he had the "Big Mo" (for "momentum"), and with Reagan boycotting the Puerto Rico primary in deference to New Hampshire, the victorious Bush looked as if he might actually beat Reagan to the nomination.

With the other candidates in single digits, the Nashua Telegraph offered to host a debate between Reagan and Bush. Worried that a newspaper-sponsored debate might violate electoral regulations, Reagan subsequently arranged to fund the event with his own campaign money, inviting the other candidates to participate at short notice. The Bush camp did not learn of Reagan's decision to include the other candidates until the debate was due to commence. Bush refused to participate, which led to an impasse on the stage. As Reagan attempted to explain his decision, the editor of the Nashua Telegraph ordered the sound man to mute Reagan's microphone. A visibly angry Reagan responded, quoting the Frank Capra film State of the Union, "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!" (the editor's name was in fact Jon Breen). Eventually the other candidates agreed to leave, and the debate proceeded between Reagan and Bush. Reagan's quote was often repeated as "I paid for this microphone!" and dominated news coverage of the event; Bush did not make an impact with the voters. Reagan swept the South and, although he lost five more primaries to Bush [including one where he came in third behind John Anderson (the former Illinois congressman)], had a lock on the nomination very early in the season. Reagan would always be grateful to the people of Iowa for giving him "the kick in the pants" he needed.

Reagan was an adherent of supply side economics, which argues that economic growth can be most effectively created using incentives for people to produce (supply) goods and services, such as adjusting income tax and capital gains tax rates. Accordingly, Reagan promised an economic revival that would affect all sectors of the population. He said that cutting tax rates would actually increase tax revenues because the lower rates would cause people to work harder as they would be able to keep more of their money. Reagan also called for a drastic cut in "big government" programs and pledged to deliver a balanced budget for the first time since 1969. In the primaries Bush famously called Reagan's economic policy "voodoo economics" because it promised to lower taxes and increase revenues at the same time.

The 1980 Republican National Convention was held in Detroit, Michigan, in July. The tally at the convention was as follows:

Reagan initially negotiated with Gerald Ford to be his running mate; when the complex plan fell through (Ford reportedly insisted Henry Kissinger and Alan Greenspan be offered cabinet positions), Reagan chose Bush as the Republican vice presidential candidate.

For Vice President the vote was:

Other candidates

John Bayard Anderson, after being defeated in the Republican primaries, entered the general election as an independent candidate because of his opposition to the more conservative policies of Reagan. His support levels in the polls fell every week as his former supporters were pulled away by Carter, who was more liberal, or Reagan, who was more conservative. His running mate was Patrick Lucey, former Governor of state of Wisconsin and then Ambassador to Mexico, appointed by President Carter.

The Libertarian Party nominated Edward Clark for President and David H. Koch for Vice President.

The Socialist Party USA nominated David McReynolds for President and Sister Diane Drufenbrock for Vice President, making McReynolds the first openly gay man to run for President.

Barry Commoner ran on the Citizens Party ticket with La Donna Harris.

The Communist Party USA ran Gus Hall for President and Angela Davis for Vice President.

General election

Campaign

Under federal election laws, Carter and Reagan received $29.4 million each, and Anderson was given a limit of $18.5 million with private fund-raising allowed for him only. They were not allowed to spend any other money. Carter and Reagan each spent about $15 million on television advertising, and Anderson under $2 million. Reagan ended up spending 29.2 million in total, Carter 29.4 million, and Anderson spent 17.6 million—partially because he didn't get FEC money until after the election.

The 1980 election is considered by some to be a realigning election. Reagan's supporters praise him for running a campaign of upbeat optimism, together with implications of a more militarily aggressive foreign policy. Carter emphasized his record as a peacemaker, and said Reagan's election would threaten civil rights and social programs that stretched back to the New Deal.

Reagan promised a restoration of the nation's military strength. Reagan also promised an end to "'trust me' government" and to restore economic health by implementing a supply-side economic policy. Reagan promised a balanced budget within three years (which he said would be "the beginning of the end of inflation"), accompanied by a 30% reduction in taxes over those same years. With respect to the economy, Reagan famously said, "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."

In August, after the Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan gave a campaign speech at an annual county fair on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Reagan famously announced, "Programs like education and others should be turned back to the states and local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can at the community level and the private level". Reagan also stated, "I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment." He went on to promise to "restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them. President Carter attacked Reagan for injecting "hate and racism" by the "rebirth of code words like 'states' rights'".

Reagan was also hurt by a series of gaffes during the campaign. When Carter appeared in a small Alabama town, Reagan incorrectly claimed the town had been the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Reagan was widely ridiculed for saying that trees caused pollution. Those remarks, and others, added to the impression that Reagan too often "shot from the hip" without checking his facts.

But if Reagan's remarks hurt his candidacy, Carter was burdened by a continued weak economy and the Iran hostage crisis. Inflation, high interest rates, and unemployment continued through the course of the campaign, and the ongoing hostage crisis in Iran became, to many, a symbol of American impotence during the Carter years. John Anderson's independent candidacy, aimed at liberals, was also seen as hurting Carter more than Reagan, especially in such Democratic states as Massachusetts and New York.

The campaign was largely negative, with many voters disliking Carter's handling of the economy, but also perceiving Reagan as an intellectual lightweight, possibly unable to handle the presidency and with various questionable policies. One analysis of the election has suggested that "Both Carter and Reagan were perceived negatively by a majority of the electorate.

The election of 1980 was a key turning point in American politics. It signaled the new electoral power of the suburbs and the Sun Belt. Reagan's success as a conservative would initiate a realigning of the parties, as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats would either leave politics or change party affiliations through the 1980s and 1990s to leave the parties much more ideologically polarized.

The debates

The most important event of the entire 1980 presidential campaign was the second presidential debate, which was held one week to the day before the election (October 28). Over the course of two hours, the entire race changed drastically, and what was considered an extremely tight race with the President slightly ahead became a comfortable Republican victory.

Nothing of that magnitude has happened since in any televised confrontations.

The League of Women Voters, who had sponsored the 1976 Ford/Carter series, announced that it would do so again for the next cycle in the spring of 1979. However, Carter was not eager to participate. He had repeatedly refused to debate Sen. Kennedy during the primary season, and had given ambivalent signals as to his participation in the fall.

The LWV had announced a schedule of debates similar to 1976, three presidential and one vice presidential. No one had much of a problem with this until it was announced that Rep. John Anderson might be invited to participate along with Carter and Reagan. Carter steadfastly refused to participate with Anderson included and Reagan refused to debate without him.

The first debate took place in Baltimore, Maryland on September 21. The President was nowhere to be found. Moderated by Bill Moyers, the confrontation between Anderson and Reagan was considered a dud. Anderson, who many thought would handily dispatch the former Governor, could according to many in the media manage only a draw. Anderson, who had been as high as 20% in some polls and at the time of the debate was over ten, dropped to about five soon after. Still, with the President boycotting, the whole thing seemed meaningless and ratings were low.

As September turned into October, the situation remained essentially the same. Reagan demanded Anderson in and Carter demanded him out. As the standoff continued, the second round was canceled, as was the vice presidential debate.

With two weeks to go to the election, the Reagan campaign decided that the best thing to do at that moment was to accede to all of Carter's demands, and LWV agreed to disinvite Congressman Anderson from the remaining debate, which was rescheduled for October 28 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Moderated by Howard K. Smith, the presidential debate between President Carter and Governor Reagan received among the highest ratings of any television show in the previous decade. Debate topics included the Iranian hostage crisis, and nuclear arms treaties and proliferation. Carter's campaign sought to portray Reagan as a reckless "hawk." Reagan would have none of it, and it came as no surprise, then, when the candidates repeatedly clashed over the nuclear weapons issue in their debate. But it was Carter's reference to his consultation with 12 year old daughter Amy concerning nuclear weapons policy that became the focus of post-debate analysis and fodder for late-night television jokes.

Reagan's demeanor, on the other hand, was sunny and tolerant. When Carter made a reference to the governor's record, voting against Medicare and Social Security benefits, he replied with a cheerful "There you go again."

In his closing remarks, Reagan asked a simple yet devastating question that would resonate with voters in 1980 and beyond: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" According to Carter' Press Secretary Jody Powell's memoirs, internal tracking polls showed Carter's tiny lead turning into a major Reagan landslide over the final weekend.

Results

The election was held on November 4, 1980. Ronald Reagan with running mate George Bush beat Carter by almost ten percentage points in the popular vote. Republicans also gained control of the Senate for the first time in twenty-five years on Reagan's coattails. The electoral college vote was a landslide, with 489 votes (representing 44 states) for Reagan and 49 votes for Carter (representing 6 states and the District of Columbia). NBC News projected Reagan as the winner at 8:15 pm EST (5:15 PST), before voting was finished in the West, based on exit polls. (It was the first time a broadcast network used exit polling to project a winner, and took the other broadcast networks by surprise.) Carter conceded defeat at 9:50 pm EST. Carter's loss was the worst defeat for an incumbent President since Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 by a margin of 18%. John B. Anderson won no electoral votes, but got 5,720,060 popular votes. His 6.6% share of the popular vote total was the best by a third party or independent since 1968, and would not be bettered again until Ross Perot won 19% in 1992.

Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark received 921,299 popular votes (1.1%). The Libertarians succeeded in getting Clark on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Clark's best showing was in Alaska where he received 12% of the vote. As of 2008, this is the best performance by a Libertarian presidential candidate.

Trivia

  • After Ronald Reagan and George Bush were officially nominated, the two running mates held a joint press conference in which the microphones kept malfunctioning. Recalling Reagan's memorable line from the New Hampshire primary campaign, a reporter asked Reagan, "Governor, who paid for these microphones?" The press and the candidates greeted the question with laughter.
  • A television ad from the Jerry Brown campaign that aired in Wisconsin showed an image of the California governor with parts of the picture marred by splotches of empty space due to a technical snafu, giving the appearance of holes in the candidate's head. Brown had publicly stated that he needed a win in the Wisconsin primary to stay in the campaign; he dropped out when he lost.
  • After Jimmy Carter's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden, a flood of balloons was supposed to drop. However, the overhead machine experienced difficulty and the balloons could not drop, after a significant wait they began to drop, but then at a very slow pace. This was considered a bad omen on the fall campaign. Similar malfunctions occurred during the 1996 Republican National Convention following nominee Bob Dole's speech and the 2004 Democratic Convention following nominee John Kerry's speech. In 2004, TV microphones picked up the voice of Don Mischer, the director & producer of the convention, who (perhaps remembering 1980) uttered several profanities regarding his displeasure at the malfunction (YouTube link here).
  • In his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Carter recalled deceased Democratic leaders and referred to Hubert Humphrey, whose middle name was Horatio, as "Hubert Horatio Hornblower." He quickly corrected himself.
  • Rock star Joe Walsh ran a mock campaign as a write-in candidate, promising to make his song "Life's Been Good" the new national anthem if he won, and running on a platform of "Free Gas For Everyone." Though Walsh was not old enough to actually assume the office, he wanted to raise public awareness of the election. (In 1992, Walsh recorded a song called "Vote For Me," in which he declared his candidacy for vice-president.)
  • Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority lobbying group is credited with giving Reagan two-thirds of the white, evangelical vote.

Statistics

Source (Popular Vote):

Source (Electoral Vote):

Close states

Margin of victory less than 5%

  1. Massachusetts, 0.15%
  2. Tennessee, 0.29%
  3. Arkansas, 0.61%
  4. Alabama, 1.30%
  5. Mississippi, 1.32%
  6. Kentucky, 1.46%
  7. South Carolina, 1.53%
  8. Hawaii, 1.90%
  9. North Carolina, 2.12%
  10. Delaware, 2.33%
  11. New York, 2.67%
  12. Maryland, 2.96%
  13. Maine, 3.36%
  14. Minnesota, 3.94%
  15. Wisconsin, 4.72%

Margin of victory more than 5% but less than 10%

  1. Louisiana, 5.45%
  2. Vermont, 5.96%
  3. West Virginia, 6.02%
  4. Michigan, 6.49%
  5. Missouri, 6.81%
  6. Pennsylvania, 7.11%
  7. Illinois, 7.93%
  8. Connecticut, 9.63%
  9. Oregon, 9.66%

Voter demographics

SOCIAL GROUPS AND THE PRESIDENTIAL VOTE, 1980 AND 1976
Size '80 Carter '80 Reagan '80 Anderson '76 Carter '76 Ford
Party
Democratic 43 66 26 6 77 22
Independent 23 30 54 12 43 54
Republican 28 11 84 4 9 90
Ideology
Liberal 18 57 27 11 70 26
Moderate 51 42 48 8 51 48
Conservative 31 23 71 4 29 70
Race
Black 10 82 14 3 82 16
Hispanic 2 54 36 7 75 24
White 88 36 55 8 47 52
Sex
Female 48 45 46 7 50 48
Male 52 37 54 7 50 48
Religion
Protestant 46 37 56 6 44 55
White Protestant 41 31 62 6 43 57
Catholic 25 40 51 7 54 44
Jewish 5 45 39 14 64 34
Family Income
Less than $10,000 13 50 41 6 58 40
$10,000–$14,999 15 47 42 8 55 43
$15,000–$24,999 29 38 53 7 48 50
$25,000–$50,000 24 32 58 8 36 62
Over $50,000 5 25 65 8
Occupation
Professional or manager 39 33 56 9 41 57
Clerical, sales, white collar 11 42 48 8 46 53
Blue-collar 17 46 47 5 57 41
Agriculture 3 29 66 3
Unemployed 3 55 35 7 65 34
Education
Less than high school 11 50 45 3 58 41
High school graduate 28 43 51 4 54 46
Some college 28 35 55 8 51 49
College graduate 27 35 51 11 45 55
Union Membership
Labor union household 28 47 44 7 59 39
No member of household in union 62 35 55 8 43 55
Age
18–21 years old 6 44 43 11 48 50
22–29 years old 17 43 43 11 51 46
30–44 years old 31 37 54 7 49 49
45–59 years old 23 39 55 6 47 52
60 years or older 18 40 54 4 47 52
Region
East 25 42 47 9 51 47
South 27 44 51 3 54 45
White South 22 35 60 3 46 52
Midwest 27 40 51 7 48 50
Far West 19 35 53 9 46 51
Community Size
City over 250,000 18 54 35 8 60 40
Suburb/small city 53 37 53 8 53 47
Rural/town 29 39 54 5 47 53
Source: CBS News/ New York Times interviews with 12,782 voters as they left the polls, as reported in the New York Times, November 9, 1980, p. 28, and in further analysis. The 1976 data are from CBS News interviews.

See also

References

Books
* Busch, Andrew E. Reagan's Victory: The Presidential Election of 1980 and the Rise of the Right, (2005) online review by Michael Barone
* John Ehrman. The Eighties: American in the Age of Reagan (2005)
*Ferguson, Thomas; Joel Rogers (1986). Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics. Hill and Wang.
*Germond, Jack W.; Jules Witcover (1981). Blue Smoke & Mirrors: How Reagan Won & Why Carter Lost the Election of 1980.
* (1981). The Election of 1980: Reports and Interpretations. Chatham House.
* Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (2005)
*West, Darrell M. (1984). Making Campaigns Count: Leadership and Coalition-Building in 1980. Greenwood Press. Journal articles
*Himmelstein, Jerome; J. A. McRae Jr. (1984). "Social Conservatism, New Republicans and the 1980 Election". Public Opinion Quarterly 48 595–605.
*Lipset, Seymour M.; Earl Raab (1981). "Evangelicals and the Elections". Commentary 71 25–31.
*Miller, Arthur H.; Martin P. Wattenberg (1984). "Politics from the Pulpit: Religiosity and the 1980 Elections". Public Opinion Quarterly 48 300–12.

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