Reagan’s Victory : The Presidential Election of 1980 and the Rise of the Right by Andrew E. Busch

1980After covering a few very close elections (although not brave enough to read a book about the 2000 election yet), I switched over to an election that was not remotely close, Ronald Reagan’s big win over incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Busch, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, lays out all the problems that the United States faced heading into the 1980 election cycle. Carter had proven to be an ineffective president, facing opposition from within his own party on a variety of issues. There was an energy crisis. There was high inflation. There was high unemployment. The American embassy in Iran was occupied by protestors and embassy staff was taken hostage. (And Ben Affleck could only get some of them out.)

Late in 1979, Carter’s Vice President, Walter Mondale, thought of dropping off the ticket, fearing that Carter was doomed to a big defeat, but stayed out of loyalty. Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, after some false starts, decided to run against Carter in the primaries, potentially making Carter the first incumbent to be denied renomination since Franklin Pierce in 1856. (The Democrats opted to run James Buchanan instead, who pledged to serve just one term, not that anyone would have wanted him back. Rutherford Hayes pledged to serve just one term in 1876 after his controversial election.)

The frontrunner in 1980 was always Reagan. He narrowly lost out on the nomination in 1976 to President Gerald Ford. But, in 1980, he still faced some competition for the nomination.

The serious contenders to Reagan included two Illinois Congressmen, Philip Crane and John Anderson, who represented opposite ends of the political spectrum. Crane was briefly a conservative darling, while Anderson was a favorite with the increasingly rare breed of liberal Republicans.

From the Senate, Bob Dole, Ford’s running mate in 1976, and Howard Baker, who rose to fame during the Watergate hearings, both mounted campaigns.

Finally, there were two men who were officially out of office, but still well-connected in George H.W. Bush and John Connally. However, Reagan had a huge edge on all the other candidates in terms of fund-raising and name recognition.

Nevertheless, Reagan’s campaign didn’t start smoothly. Reagan did not make much of an effort in the Iowa caucuses and Bush took home a surprising win. Bush bragged that he had “the Big Mo.”

The Big Mo did not make it through New Hampshire. Reagan’s campaign got itself organized and started putting the candidate in spots where he could shine. Most famously at a radio debate, there was a dispute over which candidates could speak. Reagan wanted all of the candidates to speak. Bush wanted fewer. Reagan voiced objections when the moderator ordered his microphone turned off and said, “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.” (The man in question was actually named Jon Breen.)

Reagan turned out all the major conservative elements of the Republican Party to win big in New Hampshire, especially benefitting from help from the National Rifle Association. The rest of the Republican campaign was one long coronation for Reagan.

Carter and Kennedy (as well as California Governor Jerry Brown who also decided to get in the race) tried to run a race against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis. It was not easy. The race was contentious, with Carter having earlier bragged, on the record, that if Kennedy ran, “he would kick his ass.”

The party conventions in 1980 were the last ones where there were important back room deals that affected the tickets. For the Republicans, Reagan toyed with the idea of naming Ford as his running mate. Ford asked for more power as VP than Reagan was willing to concede and opted for the much safer choice of Bush as his running mate.

At the Democratic convention, Carter had enough delegates to win, but Kennedy’s people hoped to get a rules change that would have let some of the delegates change their first ballot votes as it looked more and more like Carter was doomed to defeat. This maneuver did not work and Carter was renominated. More importantly, Carter never got Kennedy to appear with him on the podium in a show of unity.

Complicating matters was John Anderson, who decided to start a third-party campaign. Anderson hoped that his brand of liberalism on socialism combined with fiscal conservatism would find some traction between people unhappy with Carter’s middle of the road uninspired leadership or Reagan’s previously unknown levels of conservatism. In the end, Anderson ended up as more of a footnote and a headache for Carter. To Reagan, Anderson was just another bug on the windshield.

Reagan led in the polls during almost all of the election cycle. Carter was reluctant to debate, citing the Iran hostage crisis. Reagan first debated Anderson, but Carter eventually agreed to a debate. Carter tried his best to paint Reagan as a dangerously out of touch conservative, but mostly came off as a dour, dispirited man. Reagan looked to be confident. And all of the debate is remembered for just one line, Reagan saying “There you go again.” (For context, see here.)

In the final advertisements before Election Day, Reagan used the line “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” to devastating effect to show how bad the Carter administration had been. On Election Day, Reagan trounced Carter by 8 million votes and won over 50% of the popular vote, despite Anderson winning 8% of the vote. Carter won just four states and the District of Columbia. It was the biggest win ever for a non-incumbent.

Reagan also helped the Republicans gain control of the Senate as they picked up a staggering 12 seats, beating nine incumbents. The Republicans also picked up 34 House seats, but were well short of taking control. (243-192)

The second half of the book is a strong affirmation of Reagan’s strengths as President. Busch clearly believes that Reagan was not only the right president for the time, but he was also one of the best presidents of the 20th Century. Busch gives Reagan high marks for his handling of relations with the Soviet Union and for getting the economy back on track.

Of course, some of my readers (and I think they are fairly closely split between Democrats and Republicans) would disagree with Busch’s opinion, he does make a good case. He doesn’t deify Reagan like many of today’s Republicans, but still holds him in very high regard.

In some regards, you can look at 1932 as a time when Franklin Roosevelt was elected and he became a liberal icon. And in 1980, Reagan was elected to become the conservative icon. And it’s unlikely that the country will ever settle just which is the right way for the nation.

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