American Elections and Campaigns – The 1980s: The “Reagan Revolution”

By the end of the 1970s, the Carter administration had become increasingly unpopular among the general American public. The advent of “stagflation” – a combination of high unemployment rates and inflation of the money supply – persisted throughout the decade with little improvement under Carter’s leadership. In international affairs, fifty-two American civilians and diplomats were captured and held prisoner by the recently-founded Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. In an attempt to rescue the American hostages, Carter authorized Operation Eagle Claw, a military operation that would see the U.S. Army’s newly-created Delta Force rescue them from Iran. Due to mechanical problems with the helicopters and being caught in a sand storm, the military advisors suggested that Carter abort the mission. As soon as the American forces prepared to leave the staging area, one helicopter crashed into another, destroying both vehicles and killing eight American soldiers. The failed mission was considered by Ruhollah Khomeni – the then-Ayatollah of Iran – a case of divine intervention that protected his new Islamist government against American incursion. In the United States, Carter suffered a tremendous loss of public confidence due to the failed mission, which was rendered all the more lethal to his re-election campaign. Despite facing challenges for the Democratic nomination by Senator Ted Kennedy and California Governor Jerry Brown, Carter managed to secure the nomination with his current vice president Walter Mondale. Appealing to Democrats of different political affiliations, Carter claimed that the Republican ticket’s platform was antithetical to the progressive ideas of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. In addition to the Iran hostage crisis and the failed rescue operation, Carter’s presidency and re-election campaign was still faced with “stagflation” and unemployment. These factors would not only contribute to Carter’s weakness in political polls, but also outright provide his Republican challenger the right circumstances to appear as the better choice for the next president.

Left: Presidential portrait of Jimmy Carter, 1977. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Photograph of Iranian students climbing over gates to the U.S. embassy in Tehran, 1979. (Public Domain)

For the Republicans, the most popular of the prospective candidates was Ronald Reagan. After narrowly losing the nomination in the previous 1976 election, Reagan managed to defeat several of his fellow Republican candidates, including Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker and Senator Robert Dole. The strongest rival to Reagan in the primaries was George Herbert Walker Bush, a U.S. Navy veteran, former congressman from Texas, and the former Director of Central Intelligence. Despite the intense popularity of both candidates in their respective circles, Reagan managed to win the nomination over Bush at the Republican National Convention, after which the former chose the latter to serve as his running mate for the election. In the election cycle, Reagan enjoyed support largely among evangelical Christians, New Deal-era Democrats who had allied with the Republicans after the 1960s, and the increasing electoral centers of the Sun Belt and the American suburbs. Reagan made several public promises with the underlying goal of restoring American confidence and optimism, which had been severely tested and challenged by the troubles of the 1960s and 1970s. Increasing defense spending was a high priority for Reagan’s platform, as the American public had lost confidence in the U.S. military’s capabilities since both the Vietnam War and Carter’s ill-fated rescue mission in Iran. To address the economic instabilities of the era, Reagan proposed a balanced budget, the implementation of a supply-side economic policy (lower taxes, less regulations, free trade), and the withdrawal of Carter’s previous windfall tax. If these policies were to be enacted, Reagan promised that they would mark the “beginning of the end of inflation.” A central tenet to Reagan’s campaign was his belief that the federal government had grown too far beyond the implied parameters of the Constitution. He had held these beliefs since his earliest foray into politics in the 1960s, but the nationwide crises and incidents of corruption through the ensuing decades increased public belief in Reagan’s views on smaller government.

Photograph of Ronald Reagan delivering acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Detroit, Michigan, 1980. (University of Texas)
Photograph of Ronald Reagan greeting and shaking hands at Indiana campaign stop, 1980. (National Archives and Records Administration)

With their prior experience in hosting the 1976 election’s debates, the League of Women Voters agreed to sponsor the Reagan-Carter debates in 1980. In response to Carter’s reluctance to engage in any of the debates until September 1980, Reagan famously boasted that Carter would not be able to win a debate against him, “even if it were held in the Rose Garden before an audience of Administration officials with the questions being asked by Jody Powell.” In Carter’s absence, Illinois Representative John B. Anderson – a third-party candidate from the National Unity party – opted to attend the debates against Reagan. After further intervals of negotiation between the Reagan campaign and the League of Women Voters, it was finally agreed upon that a presidential debate between Reagan and Carter would be held on October 28. The televised debate shattered the viewership records of the past decade, as it showcased all the major political talking points of the election. Carter’s campaign made an effort throughout the campaign season to portray Reagan as a “dangerous right-wing radical,” who would siphon out all funding from Medicare and Social Security, and in so doing undermine the progressive political moves made by the Democrats since both the Johnson and Roosevelt administrations. Meanwhile, the increasing negative reception of the Carter administration was highlighted by the Reagan campaign, including the recent Iran hostage crisis and the poor economy. In response to Carter saying that his 12-year-old daughter was concerned about nuclear warfare in the October presidential debate, he was lampooned by several political cartoons and late-night television jokes. Among Reagan’s more notable moments from the debate were his closing remarks. He asked the viewing public if they truly felt better off on a national, economic, and political level under the Carter administration; And if they were not, then there was “another choice” that they had. The debate was seen as a win for Reagan, as his campaign went from being behind Carter’s by eight points to being ahead by three. Central to Reagan’s sudden surge in support after the debate was his frequent use of storytelling and carefully-timed witticisms, both of which helped to cement his public image as an appealing, likable figure. On Election Day, The Reagan-Bush ticket won 489 electoral votes against Carter-Mondale’s 49, rendering the former the winners of the 1980 presidential election. In addition, the Republicans won majority control over both chambers of Congress, shifting the Legislative Branch into Republican control for the first time since Eisenhower’s election in 1952. At the time of his victory, Ronald Reagan was the oldest person to be made president at the age of 69. This record was later broken by Donald Trump at the age of 70 in 2016, and once again by Joe Biden at the age of 77 in 2020.

Campaign button hyping the October presidential debate between Reagan and Carter, 1980. (Public Domain)
Ronald and Nancy Reagan greeting crowds during the Inaugural Parade on January 20, 1981. The American hostages in Iran were released on the very same day. (National Archives and Records Administration)

By the time of the 1984 presidential election, both Reagan and Bush had near-unanimous support from the Republican Party. The relative prosperity of the United States under Reagan’s leadership made both the president and vice president the ideal candidates for re-election. Reagan’s presidency saw a significant reduction in the economy’s inflation rate, a decrease in domestic spending and taxes, an increase in military spending, the advancement of the ongoing War on Drugs, and the successful U.S. invasion of Grenada in Operation Urgent Fury. In contrast, the Democratic Party faced several different challengers vying for the presidential nomination. Walter Mondale – the former Vice President to Gerald Ford – was only one of three Democratic candidates who won any state primaries. The other two being Colorado Senator Gary Hart and Illinois civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, the latter of which was the second African American to helm a national campaign to be elected president, preceded by Shirley Chisholm in 1968. Hart set himself apart from Mondale by presenting himself as a younger and more moderate representative of the Democratic Party. In spite of his strong support bases in California, New Hampshire, and Ohio, Hart did not have the same established financial and electoral resources as Mondale. A notable incident during a televised debate was when Mondale turned to Hart and remarked that his “New Ideas” slogan for the Democratic Party reminded him of the “Where’s the beef?” catchphrase by the Wendy’s fast food chain. The insinuation that Hart’s new policies lacked the specific detail and clear planning of other Democrats drew laughter from the audience attending the debate. The support gap between Mondale and Hart grew wider over the months in 1984, culminating in Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro – the first woman to be nominated for Vice President on a major party’s platform – being selected for the Democratic Party’s ticket in 1984.

Screenshot of televised debate from the Democratic primaries right after Mondale compared Hart’s political proposals to the “Where’s the beef?” slogan from Wendy’s, 1984. (CBS News)
Photo of Democratic nominees Mondale and Ferraro at a campaign rally in Florida, 1984. (Library of Congress)

Mondale’s platform was largely progressive and liberal in its proposals. The key tenets of his campaign was a freeze on nuclear weapons development, ratifying the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, reforming Reagan’s economic policies, and reducing budget deficits in the federal government. The campaign itself was praised by fellow Democrats for having a woman as the vice presidential candidate. In spite of this, a series of polls taken after the Democratic National Convention reflected that support for Ferraro as the vice presidential candidate was only a fraction of what it was originally believed to be, including among female voters. More negative publicity accumulated around Ferraro due to her husband having alleged ties to criminal organizations and political corruption. While the allegations were never officially proven – and even with Ferraro releasing her family’s tax returns for transparency purposes – the Democratic campaign was irreversibly damaged. Further, Mondale himself faced criticism by the Roman Catholic Church for holding a pro-choice position on abortion, in spite of him being a baptized, practicing Catholic. Meanwhile, the Reagan campaign enjoyed relatively consistent success, utilizing the platform of maintaining the accomplishments the administration had made since 1981. Aside from the re-election campaign making memorable use of the two television ads “Morning in America” and “Bear in the woods,” a notable mishap by the campaign was its choice of music. For a brief time during public appearances and speeches, the Reagan campaign used “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen, a song written to criticize the mistreatment of Vietnam War veterans. In spite of the anti-war theme and melancholic lyrics, the song was mistaken for being fervently patriotic in its intent, to which the Reagan campaign stopped using it after Springsteen himself sent a formal request for them to stop. Outside of the campaign messaging itself, one of the more pertinent concerns surrounding Reagan was his age. At the time of his presidential victory in 1980, Reagan was the oldest person to be elected at the age of 69. At the age of 73 in 1984, Reagan later admitted to feeling “confused” in his responses during the first presidential debate against Mondale. When questioned about his age being a concern in the second debate on October 21, Reagan responded to moderator Henry Trewhitt with a joke, remarking that he would not exploit, “for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Mondale and the audience laughed at Reagan’s joke, and political analysts have observed in retrospect that maintaining his signature witticisms even as he got older managed to restore confidence in his fitness to serve as president. Reagan himself would later be officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, leading to historical and political speculation that he may have started experiencing symptoms of it as early as 1981. On Election Day, Reagan nearly-unanimously won the election with 525 electoral votes to 13, winning every voting section of the United States except for Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

Campaign logo for Reagan-Bush re-election campaign, 1984. (Public Domain)
Photograph of Ronald and Nancy Reagan receiving a phone call from Mondale conceding the election, 1984. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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