Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

Political Setting

Ronald Reagan was a leading force in national politics for a quarter century. He had an impact because he had deep convictions, star power, and political skills—and also because he arrived on the scene when the winds of change were blowing in the direction of conservatives. That was not apparent to most Americans when Reagan made his national debut in behalf of Barry Goldwater in 1964. The New Deal coalition created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 had been the dominant political movement in the United States for three decades, as it would continue to be until the last year of the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency in 1968. But in the 1960s, the coalition was fraying along lines of race and class, and the unraveling accelerated during the Vietnam War. The business community and many rank-and-file Republicans had become increasingly resistant to what they deemed the heavy hand of government. Many white southerners shared this view as the federal government clamped down on the states while enforcing the civil rights laws of the 1960s—in time the racial backlash would spread to the North after urban disorders there.

Meanwhile, within the Republican Party, resurgent conservatives mobilized against what they saw as the "me-too" policies of the GOP's long dominant Eastern leadership. In 1964, Goldwater transformed the party by narrowly defeating Nelson Rockefeller, the champion of the Eastern establishment. Goldwater lost by a landslide to President Lyndon B. Johnson in the general election, but the GOP remained in conservative hands. On its face, the 1964 presidential election was a reaffirmation of the New Deal and LBJ's "Great Society," but Goldwater carried five states in the Deep South and won the overall popular vote in the region in an augury of elections to come. The immediate beneficiary of this political realignment was the malleable Richard Nixon, who won the White House in 1968 against a divided Democratic Party and the independent candidacy of George Wallace at a time the nation was shaken by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Nixon was reelected in 1972, then forced to resign in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal. Vice President Gerald Ford inherited the presidency but was a weakened candidate after he pardoned Nixon in September 1974. It was in this context that Reagan challenged Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976.

Ford entered the race with the endorsement of almost the entire party political establishment—Paul Laxalt of Nevada, a longtime friend of Reagan, was the only U.S. senator to back him against Ford. But Reagan was a hero to conservatives, and he lacked the political baggage of having been part of a Washington establishment that been discredited by the interlocking traumas of Watergate and the Vietnam War. Reagan's strategists believed that if he scored a quick victory in the first primary of New Hampshire, support for Ford would evaporate. But Ford's strategists seized on a speech Reagan had made in September 1975 in which he said the federal government could reduce spending by $90 billion by allowing state governments to assume responsibility for various federal programs. Ford contended that the Reagan plan would give states a choice of bankruptcy or raising taxes. In anti-tax New Hampshire, this was a powerful argument. Thrust on the defensive, Reagan's campaign operatives made several tactical errors, including keeping the candidate out of the state on election day. Reagan lost the primary by a hairsbreadth, and Ford quickly parlayed the advantage this gave him into victories in six other primaries. With the North Carolina primary upcoming, the Reagan campaign was on the ropes.

At this point, Reagan struck back by making an issue of the Panama Canal, which the Ford administration planned to turn over to Panama. He also hit hard at Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Reagan charged with being too accommodating to the Soviet Union. To the surprise of the White House and most of the media, Reagan won the North Carolina primary and revived his campaign. He went on to sweep several primaries, including big ones in Texas and California. Ford countered with a "Rose Garden strategy," using the power of the presidency to win over uncommitted delegates, even inviting a number of them to the White House. By mid-July he had the advantage; Reagan tried to forestall the inevitable by naming Pennsylvania Republican senator Richard Schweiker as his prospective running mate in an attempt to win over moderate Republicans who were on the fence. Ford prevailed at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City by the narrow margin. On a secret ballot, Ford's operatives privately acknowledged, Reagan would have been the runaway choice of the convention.

Reagan gave token support to Ford in the fall campaign against Democrat Jimmy Carter; some of Ford's operatives asserted afterward that more robust campaigning by Reagan could have changed the outcome. On the other hand, Reagan's challenge sharpened Ford and made him a better candidate in the general election. Far behind Carter during the summer, Ford made a strong comeback in the fall but fell short. His defeat left Reagan as the heir apparent in the Republican Party.

The Republican Primaries

Although he did not formally declare his candidacy until November 1979, Reagan made it clear to his inner circle from the moment of the 1976 convention that he intended to again seek the presidency. He was the choice of rank-and-file Republican voters in public opinion polls although many establishment GOP politicians thought he was too conservative and perhaps too old to win the White House. Six other Republicans sought the nomination in 1980: Senate minority leader Howard Baker of Tennessee, former Texas governor John Connally, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, Representative Phillip Crane of Illinois, former CIA director George H.W. Bush, and Representative John Anderson of Illinois.

None of these men had Reagan's combination of political stature and communication skills, although Bush, who had represented the United States at the United Nations and in China, and had served in the House and as Republican national chairman, had broader experience. Moreover, conservatives were the dominant force within the Republican Party, and Reagan was their champion. Moderate Republicans worried that Reagan would be too confrontational toward the Soviet Union. Then, at a time when Reagan had virtually been anointed the Republican nominee, Bush upset him in the first primary test, the Iowa caucuses. Reagan's campaigning in Iowa had been lackadaisical, and Bush and others questioned whether Reagan could simultaneously carry out his promises to lower taxes, increase military spending, and balance the federal budget. John Anderson said Reagan could do all this only "with mirrors." Bush derisively called Reagan's fiscal plans "voodoo economics."

Bush's victory in Iowa touched off a power struggle within the Reagan campaign and motivated the candidate. Members of Reagan's old California political team, encouraged by Nancy Reagan, knew that their candidate was at his best when voters saw him in person, where they could hear his often inspiring oratory and sense his personal warmth. Reagan campaigned nearly uninterrupted for twenty-one days in New Hampshire, a display of stamina that quieted concerns about his age. And when he faced off against his rivals in two February debates, Reagan proved a superior candidate.

In an incident that has become legendary in American political history, the moderator of the second debate ordered Reagan's microphone turned off as the candidates and their advisers argued about the debate's format. Reagan, paraphrasing a line from an old Spencer Tracy movie, defiantly responded, "I paid for this microphone." He soared in the polls and routed all his opponents in the primary. With New Hampshire as his springboard, Reagan rolled to the nomination, winning twenty-nine of the thirty-three primaries in which he and Bush competed. (Bush won the other four plus a primary that Reagan did not enter.) At the Republican national convention in Detroit, Michigan, Reagan then reached out to the moderate wing of the party by choosing Bush as his vice presidential running mate.  

The 1980 Presidential Campaign

Carter and Reagan were not alone in the 1980 presidential campaign. Representative John Anderson, a moderate Republican from Illinois who had run in his party's primaries, saw Reagan as too conservative and launched an independent campaign for the presidency. Anderson's platform was liberal compared to Reagan's—and in some respects even to Carter's. He posed a potential problem to both the Carter and Reagan campaigns. Carter's strategists worried that he would win the votes of disaffected Democrats, especially in populous Northeastern states. Reagan's strategists worried that he would lure enough Republican moderates and independents to make things close in Republican-leaning states.

Reagan left the Republican National Convention in mid-July 1980 with a commanding lead over Carter in the polls. The race tightened considerably, however, over the ensuing months, in part because Democrats closed ranks after Carter was renominated in mid-August at the Democratic Convention in New York. Reagan's early stumbles also aided the Carter comeback.

A month before he formally opened his general election campaign, Reagan gave a speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, not far from where three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in 1964. Pollster-strategist Richard Wirthlin, whose surveys showed Reagan strong in the South but needing the votes of moderates in the North, urged Reagan not to attend this event, but Reagan said he had accepted the invitation and would not back out. In his speech in Neshoba, Reagan reaffirmed his support for state's rights, the doctrine that had been widely invoked in the region in support of segregation. The Mississippi incident was followed by other missteps: Reagan appeared before a jeering crowd of hecklers in the Bronx; he proclaimed the Vietnam War "a noble cause;" he suggested that both creationism and Darwinism should be taught in schools; he wrongly linked President Carter to the Ku Klux Klan. After Reagan expressed his support for Taiwan, his campaign team sent George Bush to China to reassure Chinese leaders that a Reagan presidency would not bring a wholesale reevaluation of Sino-American relations.

The cumulative effect of these incidents raised questions about Reagan's competency and threatened to derail his strategy of making Carter's record the focus of the campaign. It also played into Carter's strategy of portraying Reagan as an "extremist" who would divide America along racial, religious, and regional lines. But Carter overplayed his hand, denouncing Reagan in such strident terms that even some Democrats were put off by his attack. Meanwhile, the Reagan campaign rebounded. With Nancy Reagan playing a key role, Reagan brought in Stuart K. Spencer, a political consultant who had been instrumental in his first political victory when he ran for governor of California. Spencer was a calming presence for Reagan, and he helped keep the campaign focused on Carter's record. Even so, by mid-October, Carter had closed the considerable gap between him and his challenger. Reagan clung to a small lead in most polls, but his lead was within the margin of error.

Reagan and Carter had serious policy differences. Reagan urged a more muscular stance towards the Soviet Union and promised a major rearmament effort; he also made clear his opposition to SALT II, an arms treaty with Moscow that Carter had signed and that was currently pending before the Senate. Carter promised to prosecute the Cold War vigorously; indeed during the last year of his term, he had increased defense spending and strongly warned the Soviets, via the "Carter Doctrine," not to make advances in the Middle East. But he also emphasized that he was a moderate in foreign policy, contending that with Reagan in the Oval Office, the nation was more likely to become involved in a war.

The two candidates also differed on domestic issues. Carter promised strong support for environmental regulations and assured voters he would protect abortion rights. He claimed the economy was rebounding, pointing to a recent growth in housing starts and business loans. Reagan contended that environmental regulations were hurting the economy and made clear his opposition to abortion, although he did not dwell on the issue. Reagan promised to cut taxes, shrink the size of the federal government, and balance the federal budget. He said the nation was in recession. When told by his advisers that this was not technically true, Reagan stuck to his guns. He then formulated what became a surefire applause line of his campaign: "Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his"

Beyond their differences on issues, Reagan had two clear advantages over Carter. The first is that he was a Washington outsider, as Carter had been in 1976. In the eyes of many Americans, Carter had promised much but delivered little and was to blame for the economic calamities that had befallen the nation. Reagan also had an optimistic temperament. Carter, in contrast, was defensive and stopped holding White House press conferences because of the critical nature of the questions.

The temperamental contrast between the two men was at the center of what may have been the campaign's decisive moment: the Reagan-Carter debate of October 28, a week before the election. Both candidates held their own on substantive issues—indeed, many observers thought Carter was the better of the two, but Reagan was more relaxed and confident. When Carter accurately pointed out Reagan's record of opposition to the Medicare program in the hopes of portraying his opponent an extremist, Reagan ignored the charge and softly replied, "There you go again," a line he had rehearsed in debate practice. He wound up the debate with an effective iteration of his basic campaign theme asking Americans to make their decision on the basis of the Carter administration's record: "Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?" For voters who answered "no" to these questions, Reagan was the clear alternative.

Reagan widened his lead in the polls in the week after the debate. The Reagan team had earlier worried that Carter might pull off an "October surprise" by winning freedom of the Americans held hostage in Iran, but after the debate they doubted that even this would rescue the President. On election day, Reagan overwhelmed Carter, winning 51 percent of the vote to Carter's 41 percent. Anderson had less than 7 percent of the vote but siphoned support from Carter in states such as New York and Massachusetts, enabling Reagan to carry these states and win an electoral landslide. Reagan won 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49.

Carter's showing was the worst for any incumbent President who sought reelection since Herbert Hoover in 1932. This was largely because the frustrations with Carter outweighed the reservations about Reagan among undecided voters, who broke heavily against the President. Reagan did well among Catholic voters and made inroads among working-class Democrats and union families. He also did well in the South, which was Carter's base. And the country as a whole was in the mood for change. The Republicans picked up fifty-three seats in the House of Representatives and twelve in the Senate, giving them a majority for the first time in the Senate since 1954. Some of the Republican gains were seen by Reagan's team as a sign that he had long coattails.

The Campaign and Election of 1984

Republicans enthusiastically renominated Reagan and Bush in 1984. The President's popularity had risen dramatically since its nadir in late 1982, largely because the economic boom that had begun in 1983 picked up steam the following year. Lower inflation, reduced tax rates, less joblessness, and a robust gross national product provided Reagan and his supporters with a litany of accomplishments. In foreign affairs, a massive defense build-up and the President's muscular rhetoric led many Americans to conclude that Reagan was protecting the nation's interests and its international stature. The sum of these accomplishments was a restored public confidence and national pride epitomized by the chants of "USA, USA" that began at the Olympic summer games in Los Angeles and were often heard at Reagan rallies in the fall. The mood was captured by the Reagan campaign theme, expressed radiantly in feel-good television commercials: Morning Again in America.

The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination was Minnesotan Walter Mondale, who served as vice president under Jimmy Carter. Mondale fought back determined challenges in the primaries from Senator Gary Hart of Colorado and civil rights activist Reverend Jessie Jackson to secure the nomination, which he received on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, California. Mondale defied convention—and the advice of some of his strategists—by proclaiming in his acceptance speech that he would raise taxes and predicting that Reagan would also raise them if reelected. He also injected a note of excitement into the campaign by picking a woman, New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate.

Reagan's reelection campaign was in some respects the inverse of his 1980 campaign, when he asked voters if they were better off than they had been four years earlier. The polls in 1984 showed that a large majority of Americans were now answering this question affirmatively. Reagan's strategists ignored Mondale for much of the campaign. They expected—and wanted—the election to be a referendum on the Reagan presidency.

Mondale's strategy was to acknowledge Reagan's popularity but question his policies. The Democratic contender declared that Reagan's tax cuts benefited the rich. He claimed that the President endorsed a conservative social agenda—opposing abortion rights and favoring prayer in schools—that was out of touch with the American mainstream. Mondale warned that Republican fiscal policies had created huge budget deficits that endangered the nation's long-term economic health; in a tactic that showed more honesty than political good sense, he reiterated his acceptance promise that he would raise taxes to balance the federal budget. Finally, Mondale repeatedly suggested that Reagan was too old for the presidency.

Throughout most of the summer and into the early fall, Reagan held a double-digit lead in the polls. His campaign, though, was largely on automatic pilot. The President's political advisers kept his schedule light and the candidate away from the news media. But Reagan's campaign team could not protect Reagan from himself. The President was ill prepared for his first televised debate with Mondale in October. He stumbled over lines and responded ineffectively to Mondale's charges that he favored reduction of Social Security and Medicare benefits. Reagan's poor performance had done what the Democrats had been unable to do: raise the issue of whether he was too old to be President. Reagan's political team set about rebuilding their 73-year-old candidate's confidence, streamlining his preparation—at the urging of Nancy Reagan—for a second debate with Mondale. In Kansas City, a rested and revitalized President took the stage. The night's highpoint occurred when Reagan fielded a question about his age, remarking—in deadpan fashion—that "I will not make age an issue of this campaign . . . I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale laughed uncomfortably, realizing that Reagan had disposed of the age issue with a one-liner. Reagan had gone up in the polls after his "there-you-go-again" debate with Carter four years earlier. In 1984, a campaign in which he led from beginning to end, Reagan's numbers soared even higher after the second debate with Mondale. In the aftermath of the debate, Reagan's lead shot up to 17 percentage points; throughout the remainder of the campaign, it would never dip below 15 percentage points.

The Reagan-Bush ticket won an overwhelming victory on election day, carrying every state but Mondale's Minnesota and the District of Columbia, and defeating Mondale in the Electoral College by 525 to 13. Reagan's popular vote total was even more impressive—54 million votes to Mondale's 37 million—a margin exceeded only by Nixon's win over George McGovern in 1972.

Reagan's victory was a testament to the President's personal popularity but also arguably a ratification of public support for his economic program, especially tax cuts. Reagan won a majority of independents and more than a fifth of the Democratic vote. He ran more strongly among the youngest cohort of voters than any Republican in the twentieth century. Traditional Republican support among white Protestants, small-town and rural Americans, college graduates, upper-class Americans, and white-collar managers and professionals remained exceedingly strong. Catholics who had supported Reagan in 1980 voted for him again in 1984, as did a large number of skilled and unskilled workers, high school graduates, and persons of moderate incomes.

But Reagan's reelection was more a personal triumph than a partisan endorsement. He had run a campaign with few issues that gave few clues as to his direction in a second term. And his coattails were short, as Democrats kept control of the House of Representatives. Republicans clung to control of the Senate in 1984, but the midterm elections of 1986 would put Democrats back in the majority.