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|Presidential election results map. Red denotes states won by Reagan/Bush, Blue denotes those won by Carter/Mondale. Numbers indicate the electoral votes per state.|
|Presidential election results map. Red denotes states won by Reagan/Bush, Blue denotes those won by Carter/Mondale. Numbers indicate the electoral votes per state.|
The United States presidential election of 1980 was the 49th quadrennial presidential election. It was held on Tuesday, November 4, 1980. The contest was between incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter and his Republican opponent, former California Governor Ronald Reagan, as well as Republican Congressman John B. Anderson, who ran as an independent. Reagan, aided by the Iran hostage crisis and a worsening economy at home, won the election in a landslide, receiving the highest number of electoral votes ever won by a non-incumbent presidential candidate.
Carter, after defeating Edward M. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, attacked Reagan as a dangerous right-wing radical. For his part, Reagan pledged to uplift the pessimistic mood of the nation, 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 election marked the beginning of what is popularly called the "Reagan Revolution" and proved, according to conservative author Craig Shirley, "like those in 1800, 1860, and 1932, to be one of the most consequential in American history, radically altering the future and giving rise to a new generation of conservatism".
Throughout most of the 1970s, the United States underwent a wrenching period of low economic growth, high inflation and interest rates, and intermittent energy crises. By October 1978, Iran, a major oil supplier to the United States at the time, was experiencing a major uprising that severely damaged its oil infrastructure and greatly weakened its capability to produce oil. In January 1979, shortly after Iran's leader Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled the country, lead Iranian opposition figure Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from a 14-year exile and installed an Islamist regime that was hostile towards the United States. The damage that resulted from Khomeini's rise to power would soon be felt throughout many American cities. In the spring and summer of 1979 inflation was on the rise and various parts of the country were experiencing energy shortages.
With the return of the long gas lines that were last seen just after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Carter was widely blamed and planned on delivering his fifth major speech on energy; however, he felt that the American people were no longer listening. Carter left for the presidential retreat of Camp David. "For more than a week, a veil of secrecy enveloped the proceedings. Dozens of prominent Democratic Party leaders—members of Congress, governors, labor leaders, academics and clergy—were summoned to the mountaintop retreat to confer with the beleaguered president." His pollster, Pat Caddell, told him that the American people simply faced a crisis of confidence because of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Vietnam War; and Watergate. On July 15, 1979, Carter gave a nationally-televised address in which he identified what he believed to be a "crisis of confidence" among the American people. This came to be known as his "malaise" speech, although Carter never used the word in the speech.
Many expected Senator Kennedy to successfully challenge Carter in the upcoming Democratic Primary. Kennedy’s official announcement was scheduled for early November. A television interview with Roger Mudd of CBS a few days before the announcement went badly, however. Kennedy gave an "incoherent and repetitive" answer to the question of why he was running, and the polls, which showed him leading the President by 58-25 in August now had him ahead 49-39.
Meanwhile, an opportunity for political redemption came for Carter as the Khomeini regime again gained public attention and allowed the taking of 52 American hostages by a group of Islamist students and militants at the US embassy in Tehran on November 5, 1979. Carter’s calm approach towards handling this crisis resulted in his approval ratings jump in the 60-percent range in some polls, due to a "rally ‘round the flag" effect. By the beginning of the election season, the prolonged Iran hostage crisis had sharpened public perceptions of a national crisis. On April 25, 1980, Carter's ability to use the hostage crisis to regain public acceptance eroded when his attempt to rescue the hostages ended in disaster and drew further skepticism towards his leadership skills.
Following the failed rescue attempt, Jimmy Carter was overwhelmingly blamed for the Iran hostage crisis, in which the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeni burned American flags and chanted anti-American slogans, paraded the captured American hostages in public, and burned effigies of Carter. Carter's critics saw him as an inept leader who had failed to solve the worsening economic problems at home. His supporters defended the president as a decent, well-intentioned man being unfairly attacked for problems that had been building for years.
Jimmy Carter received the Democratic nomination amidst the most tumultuous primary race that an elected incumbent president has encountered since President Taft, during the highly contentious election of 1912. Having defeated Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts in 24 of 34 primaries, President Carter entered the party's convention in New York in August with 60 percent of the delegates pledged to him on the first ballot. Despite this, Kennedy refused to drop out, leading to a fight at the convention.
There was a short-lived "Draft Muskie" movement in the summer of 1980 that was seen as a favorable alternative to a deadlocked convention. One poll showed that Secretary of State Edmund Muskie would be a more popular alternative to Carter than Kennedy, implying that the attraction was not so much to Kennedy as to the fact that he was not Carter. Muskie was polling even with Ronald Reagan at the time, while Carter was seven points down. Although the underground "Draft Muskie" campaign failed, it became a political legend.
After a futile last-ditch attempt by Kennedy to alter the rules to free delegates from the first-ballot pledge, Carter was renominated with 2,129 votes to 1,146 for Kennedy. Vice President Walter Mondale was also renominated. In his acceptance speech, Carter warned that Reagan's conservatism posed a threat to world peace and progressive social welfare programs from the New Deal to the Great Society.
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 won the nomination on the first round at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, Michigan, in July, then chose George H. W. Bush, his top rival, as his running mate.
John Anderson, after being defeated in the Republican primaries, entered the general election as an independent candidate, campaigning as a moderate Republican alternative to Reagan's conservatism. However, his campaign appealed primarily to frustrated anti-Carter voters. His support progressively evaporated through the campaign season as his supporters were pulled away by Carter and Reagan. His running mate was Patrick Lucey, a Democratic former Governor of Wisconsin and then Ambassador to Mexico, appointed by President Carter.
The Libertarian Party nominated Ed Clark for President and David H. Koch for Vice President. They received almost one million votes and were on the ballot in all 50 states plus Washington DC. Koch, a co-owner of Koch Industries, pledged part of his personal fortune to the campaign.
The Clark-Koch ticket received 921,128 votes (1.06% of the total nationwide). This is the highest percentage of popular votes a Libertarian Party candidate has ever received in a presidential race to date, and remained the highest overall number of votes earned by a Libertarian candidate until the 2012 election, when Gary Johnson and James P. Gray became the first Libertarian ticket to earn more than a million votes, albeit with a lower overall vote percentage than Clark-Koch. His strongest support was in Alaska, where he came in third place with 11.66% of the vote, finishing ahead of independent candidate John Anderson and receiving almost half as many votes as Jimmy Carter.
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 and Drufenbrock the first nun to be a candidate for national office in the U.S.
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 the 33-year-old Walsh was not old enough to actually assume the office, he wanted to raise public awareness of the election.
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 (Anderson) didn't get Federal Election Commission money until after the election.
The 1980 election is considered by some to be a realigning election, reaching a climate of confrontation practically not seen since 1932. Reagan's supporters praise him for running a campaign of upbeat optimism. David Frum says Carter ran an attack-based campaign based on "despair and pessimism" which "cost him the election." 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's platform also emphasized the importance of peace, as well as a prepared self-defense.
Immediately after the conclusion of the primaries, a Gallup poll held that Reagan was ahead, with 58% of voters upset by Carter's handling of the Presidency. One analysis of the election has suggested that "Both Carter and Reagan were perceived negatively by a majority of the electorate." While the three leading candidates (Reagan, Anderson and Carter) were religious Christians, Carter had the most support of evangelical Christians according to a Gallup poll. However, in the end, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority lobbying group is credited with giving Reagan two-thirds of the white evangelical vote. According to Carter: "that autumn  a group headed by Jerry Falwell purchased $10 million in commercials on southern radio and TV to brand me as a traitor to the South and no longer a Christian."
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. While during Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign, many voters saw his warnings about a too-powerful government as hyperbolic and only 30% of the electorate agreed that government was too powerful, by 1980 a majority of Americans believed that government held too much power.
Reagan promised a restoration of the nation's military strength, at the same time 60% of Americans polled felt defense spending was too low. 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 tax rates 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." Reagan also criticized the "windfall profit tax" that Carter and Congress enacted that year in regards to domestic oil production and promised to attempt to repeal it as president. The tax was not a tax on profits, but on the difference between the price control-mandated price and the market price.
On the issue of women's rights there was much division, with many feminists frustrated with Carter, the only candidate who supported the Equal Rights Amendment. After a bitter Convention fight between Republican feminists and antifeminists the Republican Party dropped their forty-year endorsement of the ERA. Reagan, however, announced his dedication to women's rights and his intention to, if elected, appoint women to his cabinet and the first female justice to the Supreme Court. He also pledged to work with all 50 state governors to combat discrimination against women and to equalize federal laws as an alternative to the ERA. Reagan was convinced to give an endorsement of women's rights in his nomination acceptance speech.
Carter was criticized by his own aides for not having a "grand plan" for the recovery of the economy, nor did he ever make any campaign promises; he often criticized Reagan's economic recovery plan, but did not create one of his own in response.
In August, after the Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan gave a campaign speech at the annual Neshoba County Fair on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. He was the first presidential candidate ever to campaign at the fair. 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'".
Two days later, Reagan appeared at the Urban League convention in New York, where he said, "I am committed to the protection and enforcement of the civil rights of black Americans. This commitment is interwoven into every phase of the plans I will propose." He then said that he would develop "enterprise zones" to help with urban renewal.
Reagan made some gaffes during the campaign. When Carter appeared in a small Alabama town, Tuscumbia, Reagan incorrectly claimed the town had been the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan—it was actually the home of the KKK's national headquarters. Reagan was widely ridiculed by Democrats for saying that trees caused pollution; he later said that he meant only certain types of pollution and his remarks had been misquoted.
Meanwhile, 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.
|Reagan-Carter presidential debate, October 28, 1980|
An important event in the 1980 presidential campaign was the lone presidential debate, which was held one week to the day before the election (October 28). Going into the debate, average poll data indicated that Reagan had a two to three point lead over Carter. After the debate, Reagan was able to increase his lead dramatically against the president to win a comfortable Republican victory.
The League of Women Voters, which had sponsored the 1976 Ford/Carter debate series, announced that it would do so again for the next cycle in the spring of 1979. However, Carter was not eager to participate with any debate. He had repeatedly refused to a debate with Senator Edward M. Kennedy during the primary season, and had given ambivalent signals as to his participation in the fall.
The League of Women Voters 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. It took months of negotiations for the League of Women Voters to finally put it together. It was held on September 21, 1980 in the Baltimore Convention Center. Reagan said of Carter's refusal to debate: "He [Carter] knows that he couldn't win a debate even if it were held in the Rose Garden before an audience of Administration officials with the questions being asked by Jody Powell."  The League of Women Voters promised the Reagan campaign that the debate stage would feature an empty chair to represent the missing president. Carter was very upset about the planned chair stunt, and at the last minute convinced the League to take it out. The debate was moderated by Bill Moyers. Anderson, who many thought would handily dispatch the former Governor, managed only a draw, according to many in the media at that time. The Illinois congressman, who had been as high as 20% in some polls, and at the time of the debate was over 10%, dropped to about 5% soon after. Anderson failed to substantively engage Reagan, instead he started off by criticizing Carter: "Governor Reagan is not responsible for what has happened over the last four years, nor am I. The man who should be here tonight to respond to those charges chose not to attend," to which Reagan added: "It's a shame now that there are only two of us here debating, because the two that are here are in more agreement than disagreement." 
As September turned into October, the situation remained essentially the same. Governor Reagan insisted Anderson be allowed to participate, and the President remained steadfastly opposed to this. 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 President Carter's demands, and LWV agreed to exclude Congressman Anderson from the final debate, which was rescheduled for October 28 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Moderated by Howard K. Smith and presented by the League of Women Voters, the presidential debate between President Carter and Governor Reagan ranked 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 "war hawk," as well as a "dangerous right-wing radical". Governor 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 President 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. President Carter said he had asked Amy what the most important issue in that election was and she said, "the control of nuclear arms." A famous political cartoon, published the day after Reagan's landslide victory, showed Amy Carter sitting in Jimmy's lap with her shoulders shrugged asking "the economy? the hostage crisis?"
In contrast to Carter's serious and somewhat distant attitude, Reagan's demeanor was calm, sunny, tolerant and almost folksy. . When President Carter made another verbal attack against Reagan by making a reference to what he saw as the governor's record, which include voting against Medicare and Social Security benefits, Governor Reagan sighed and replied with a calm and nonchalant: "There you go again".
In describing the national debt that was approaching 1 trillion dollars, Reagan stated "a billion is a thousand millions, and a trillion is a thousand billions." When Carter would attack the content of Reagan's campaign speeches, Reagan began his counter with words: "Well... I don't know that I said that. I really don't."
In his closing remarks, Reagan asked the viewers 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? 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? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions 'yes', why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to whom you will vote for. If you don't agree, if you don't think that this course that we've been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have."
In September 1980, former Watergate scandal prosecutor Leon Jaworski accepted a position as honorary chairman of Democrats for Reagan. Five months earlier, Jaworski had harshly criticized Reagan as an "extremist;" he said after accepting the chairmanship, "I would rather have a competent extremist than an incompetent moderate."
Three days before the November 4 voting in the election, the National Rifle Association endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in its history, backing Reagan. Reagan had received the California Rifle and Pistol Association's Outstanding Public Service Award. Carter had appointed Abner J. Mikva, a fervent proponent of gun control, to a federal judgeship and had supported the Alaska Lands Bill, closing 40,000,000 acres (160,000 km2) to hunting.
The election was held on November 4, 1980. Ronald Reagan with running mate George H.W. Bush beat Carter by almost 10 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 performing of an incumbent President since Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 by a margin of 18%. Carter's defeat was the most lopsided defeat for any incumbent president in an election where only two candidates won electoral votes. Also, Jimmy Carter was the first incumbent Democrat to serve only one full term since James Buchanan and fail to secure re-election since Andrew Johnson (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms while Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson served one full term in addition to taking over after the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy respectively).
John Anderson won 6.6% of the popular vote and failed to win any state outright. He found the most support in New England, fueled by liberal Republicans who felt Reagan was too far to the right; his best showing was in Massachusetts, where he won 15% of the popular vote. Conversely, Anderson performed worst in the South. Anderson failed to achieve the spoiler effect, due to Reagan's strong showing and the fact that he arguably attracted at least as many Democrats to his ticket as Republicans.
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. The 921,299 votes achieved by the Clark-Koch ticket was the best performance by a Libertarian presidential candidate until 2012 when the Johnson-Gray ticket received 1,273,667 votes.
Reagan's electoral college victory of 489 electoral votes (90.9% of the electoral vote) was the most lopsided electoral college victory for a non-incumbent President.
This was also the last election in which an incumbent president was defeated in two elections in a row. The only other time this happened was in 1892.
|Presidential candidate||Party||Home state||Popular vote||Electoral|
|Count||Pct||Vice-presidential candidate||Home state||Elect. vote|
|Ronald Wilson Reagan||Republican||California||43,903,230||50.75%||489||George Herbert Walker Bush||Texas||489|
|James Earl Carter, Jr.||Democratic||Georgia||35,480,115||41.01%||49||Walter Frederick Mondale||Minnesota||49|
|John Bayard Anderson||Independent||Illinois||5,719,850||6.61%||0||Patrick Joseph Lucey||Wisconsin||0|
|Ed Clark||Libertarian||California||921,128||1.06%||0||David H. Koch||Kansas||0|
|Barry Commoner||Citizens||Missouri||233,052||0.27%||0||La Donna Harris||Oklahoma||0|
|Gus Hall||Communist||New York||44,933||0.05%||0||Angela Davis||California||0|
|John Rarick||American Independent||Louisiana||40,906||0.05%||0||Eileen Shearer||California||0|
|Clifton DeBerry||Socialist Workers||California||38,738||0.04%||0||Matilde Zimmermann||New York||0|
|Ellen McCormack||Right to Life||New York||32,320||0.04%||0||Carroll Driscoll||New Jersey||0|
|Maureen Smith||Peace and Freedom||California||18,116||0.02%||0||Elizabeth Barron||California||0|
|Needed to win||270||270|
|States/districts won by Reagan/Bush|
|States/districts won by Carter/Mondale|
Margin of victory less than 5% (165 electoral votes):
Margin of victory more than 5%, but less than 10% (113 electoral votes):
|Social groups and the presidential vote, 1980 and 1976|
|Size||'80 Carter||'80 Reagan||'80 Anderson||'76 Carter||'76 Ford|
|Less than US$10,000||13||50||41||6||58||40|
|Professional or manager||39||33||56||9||41||57|
|Clerical, sales, white-collar||11||42||48||8||46||53|
|Less than high school||11||50||45||3||58||41|
|High school graduate||28||43||51||4||54||46|
|Labor union household||28||47||44||7||59||39|
|No member of household in union||62||35||55||8||43||55|
|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|
|City over 250,000||18||54||35||8||60||40|
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.