With all the problems Jimmy Carter faced that year, it's hardly surprising that he was soundly beaten by Republican challenger Ronald Reagan in the presidential election of 1980. What is remarkable is that just a week before Election Day, the contest was a dead heat. "People think of the 1980 election as this huge landslide for Reagan, which in terms of the numbers, it was," remembers journalist Elizabeth Drew. "But I saw the numbers on the Friday before the election -- and both sides will tell you this -- it was a tie."
The Incumbent's Problems
That fact is hard to believe, given Reagan's strengths and all the problems Carter was facing. The economy was in bad shape, with inflation and interest rates climbing at alarming rates. Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were high in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which had forced Carter to table one of his hardest-won achievements, the SALT II arms control agreement.
The president had even been forced to fight for control of his own party. A bitter primary battle in the winter and spring against Senator Ted Kennedy, the candidate of the strong liberal wing of the Democratic party, left the party divided and Carter without a strong base going into the general election. "It was a bloodbath," recounts Carter pollster Patrick Caddell. "We have had a civil war in the party, and civil wars do not mend nicely. And that's what we had. A civil war between the northern and the southern wings of the Democratic Party."
A Formidable Opponent
Carter would need all the help he could get against Ronald Reagan, who seemed as if he had been sent from Central Casting to highlight the incumbent's weaknesses. If Carter seemed mired in details, Reagan stuck to the big picture; where Carter emphasized a more humble approach to foreign policy, Reagan was bellicose; Carter preached fiscal discipline, while the Republican promised magic through "trickle-down" economics; and while Carter talked about an age of limits, Reagan preached a gospel of unlimited optimism. "People, myself included, underestimated Reagan, " admits longtime Democrat and civil rights activist Roger Wilkins. "Those of us who were not Californians had not really seen him develop his political skills in Sacramento. Reagan was, for all his limitations, a very formidable fellow, [and he was] the combination of his beliefs, which were not numerous but they were clear, and his acting skills really made people sit up and say, 'This guy means and believes what he's saying.'"
The Political Impact of the Hostage Crisis
Perhaps the most damaging problem of all for Carter was the situation in Iran, where 53 Americans had been held hostage by Islamic militants loyal to the Ayatollah Khomeini since the previous November. Though Carter continued to search every conceivable avenue for a negotiated resolution, Americans had grown increasingly frustrated with the president after a failed rescue attempt in April. "Fairly or not, [the hostage crisis] came to symbolize the question of whether Carter was a leader, whether he was competent, whether he was strong," says Elizabeth Drew. "In some ways this was unfair. It happened. Things happen on presidential watches. In the end, though, it undid him."
Carter also fell victim to his own "Rose Garden" strategy, formulated in the early months of the crisis, which kept him from actively campaigning while the hostages were being held. "Dad could not be the Jimmy Carter that's so good in a small audience," Chip Carter remembers, "the one that really looks you in the eye and brings you on his side, just by his body language and knowing that he really cares about you. It was very difficult to project that from the White House."
Without a strong record to run on, the Carter team decided its only chance was to go after Ronald Reagan, painting him as a wild-eyed conservative ideologue who could not be trusted to maintain the peace. With the help of several gaffes from Reagan, the strategy worked, and by October the race was too close to call. Why, then, the landslide for Reagan? What happened in those final days?
The Candidates Debate
First, there was the one and only televised debate between the two candidates on October 28 in Cleveland, Ohio. Ironically, the Carter campaign had pursued a debate with Reagan because they thought it would give the president a chance to display his great command of complex issues, and that Reagan might stumble or look confused. Only when the Reagan camp saw how tight the race was did they agree to debate at all.
They were glad they did. Rather than sounding dangerous or overwhelmed, Reagan calmly brushed aside Carter's attacks, shaking his head and saying, "There you go again." As Carter speechwriter and journalist Hendrik Hertzberg put it, "When people realized that they could get rid of Carter and still not destroy the world, they went ahead and did it." And in his closing statement, Reagan brilliantly framed the election in his favor: "It might be well if you ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?" If so, he said, vote for four more years of Carter; if not, "I could suggest another choice that you have."
The "October Surprise" That Wasn't
A second likely factor in the dramatic shift was that voters realized that there would be no "October Surprise," as the Republicans feared, in which Carter managed to free the hostages and ride a wave of relief and goodwill to a second term. Instead, in a cruel accident of fate, the election coincided with the one year anniversary of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran. As Hertzberg explains, "I think what happened was that people finally realized that it really wasn't going to get any better, that the hostages probably weren't going to get released, and if they were released, it would be so close to the election that it would look like some kind of suspicious political something-or-other."
In the end, Ronald Reagan won the electoral vote 489 to 49, and enjoyed a 10 percent bulge in the popular vote. Though many call the election the dawn of the "Reagan Revolution," it's clear that the tectonic shift in American politics was well underway during the Carter presidency. "We had an underlying conservative electorate to begin with," remembers Carter's chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat. "The events that occurred over the four-year Carter presidency had reinforced that. Inflation that seemed out of control, a foreign policy that seemed weak because of the hostage crisis... the whole ambience reinforced the conservatism that was already present."
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?