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The United States presidential election of 1980 featured a contest between incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter and his Republican opponent, 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 by a landslide.

Carter, after defeating Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, attacked Reagan as a dangerous right-wing radical. For his part, Reagan, the former Governor of California, repeatedly ridiculed Carter, 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."


Through the 1970s, the United States underwent a wrenching period of low economic growth, high inflation and interest rates and intermittent energy crises. Added to this was a sense of malaise that in both foreign and domestic affairs, certain people perceived that the nation was headed downward. By the beginning of the election season, the prolonged Iran hostage crisis had sharpened public perceptions of a national crisis.

Jimmy Carter was blamed for the Iran hostage crisis, in which the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeni burned American flags and chanted anti-American slogans, parading the captured American hostages in public, and burning 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 attacked for problems that had been building for years.


Democratic Party

Democratic candidates:

Candidates gallery

Image:Jimmy Carter.jpg|President Jimmy Carter of GeorgiamarkerImage:TedKennedy.png|Senator Ted Kennedy of MassachusettsmarkerImage:JerryBrown.png|Governor Jerry Brown of CaliforniamarkerImage:Edmund Muskie.jpg|Secretary of State Edmund Muskie of Mainemarker

Having defeated Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 24 of 34 primaries, President Carter entered the party's convention in New York in August 1980 with 60 percent of the delegates pledged to him on the first ballot. Despite this, Kennedy refused to drop out, and the 1980 Democratic National Convention was one of the nastiest on record.

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. The underground "Draft Muskie" campaign failed, but 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.

Republican Party nomination

Republican candidates

Image:Official Portrait of President Reagan 1981.jpg|Former Governor Ronald Reagan of CaliforniamarkerImage:George H. W. Bush, President of the United States, 1989 official portrait.jpg|Former CIA director George H. W. Bush of TexasmarkerImage:Howard Baker photo.jpg|Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker of TennesseemarkerImage:PhilCrane.jpg|Representative Phil Crane of IllinoismarkerImage:John Connally.jpg|Former Governor John Connally of Texasmarker

Image:Harold E. Stassen.jpg|Former Minnesota Governor Harold StassenImage:Bob Dole bioguide.jpg|Senator Bob Dole of KansasmarkerImage:Lweicker.jpg‎|Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticutmarker

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, Michiganmarker, in July, then chose George H. W. Bush, his top rival, as his running mate.

Other candidates

John Anderson

John Bayard 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. 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 Wisconsinmarker and then Ambassador to Mexicomarker, appointed by President Carter.

Libertarian Party Nomination

The Libertarian Party nominated Edward 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.

Clark published a book on his programs, entitled A New Beginning. The book's introduction was by Eugene McCarthy. During the campaign, Clark positioned himself as a peace candidate and tailored his appeal to liberals and progressives unhappy with the resumption of Selective Service registration and the arms race with the Soviet Unionmarker. When asked in a television interview to summarize libertarianism, Clark used the phrase "low-tax liberalism," causing some consternation among traditional libertarian theorists, most notably economist Murray Rothbard.

Ed Clark's running mate in 1980 was David H. Koch of Koch Industries, who pledged part of his personal fortune to the campaign in exchange for the Vice-Presidential nomination.

Clark received 921,128 votes (1.06% of the total nationwide); this was the highest number and percentage of popular votes a Libertarian Party candidate has ever received in a presidential race. His strongest support was in Alaskamarker, 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.

Other candidates

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.

Barry Commoner ran on the Citizens Party ticket with La Donna Harris.

The Communist Party USA ran Gus Hall for President and Angela Davis for Vice President.

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 Walsh was not old enough to actually assume the office, he wanted to raise public awareness of the election. (In 1992, Walsh recorded a song called "Vote For Me," in which he declared his candidacy for vice-president.)

General election


Interest rate crisis of 1980
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 didn't get Federal Election Commission money until after the election.

The 1980 election is considered by some to be a realigning election. Reagan's supporters praise him for running a campaign of upbeat optimism. David Frum says Carter ran a 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. The campaign was largely negative, with many voters disliking Carter's handling of the economy. 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.

The election of 1980 was a key turning point in American politics. It signaled the new electoral power of the suburbs and the Sun Beltmarker. 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.

Campaign promises

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 taxes 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 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 Courtmarker. He also pledged 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"; he often criticized Reagan's economic plan, but did not create one of his own in response.

Campaign events

In August, after the Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan gave a campaign speech at an annual county fair on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippimarker, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. 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 was hurt by a series of gaffes during the campaign. When Carter appeared in a small Alabamamarker town, Tuscumbia, Alabamamarker, 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.

But if Reagan's remarks hurt his candidacy, 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 Massachusettsmarker and New Yorkmarker.

The debates

The most important event of the entire 1980 presidential campaign was the second presidential debate, which was held one week to the day before the election (October 28). Over the course of two hours, the entire race changed drastically, and what was considered an extremely tight race with the President slightly ahead became a comfortable Republican victory for Reagan. Nothing of that magnitude has happened since in any televised confrontations.

The League of Women Voters, which had sponsored the 1976 Ford/Carter series, announced that it would do so again for the next cycle in the spring of 1979. However, Carter was not eager to participate. He had repeatedly refused to debate Sen. Edward M. Kennedy during the primary season, and had given ambivalent signals as to his participation in the fall.

The LWV 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.

The first debate was moderated by Bill Moyers and took place in Baltimoremarker, Marylandmarker on September 21. President Carter was nowhere to be found. Anderson, who many thought would handily dispatch the former Governor, could according to many in the media manage only a draw. 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, and the two spent a good portion of the debate simply criticizing Carter for refusing to participate.

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, Ohiomarker.

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 Gov. Reagan as a reckless "hawk." Gov. 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?"

Gov. Reagan's demeanor, on the other hand, was sunny, tolerant, and almost folksy. When President Carter made a reference to what he saw as the governor's record, voting against Medicare and Social Security benefits, Gov. Reagan replied with a cheerful "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 "well, I don't know that I said that, I really don't."

In his closing remarks, Gov. Reagan asked 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? If so, I encourage you to vote for my opponent. If not, I urge you to vote for me." According to President Carter's Press Secretary Jody Powell's memoirs, internal tracking polls showed the President's tiny lead turning into a major Reagan landslide over the final weekend.


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 Associationmarker 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 to hunting.


[[Image:1980prescountymap2.PNG|thumb|right|400px|Election results by county.
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. Republican 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 defeat for an incumbent President since Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 by a margin of 18%. Carter's defeat is the most lopsided defeat for any incumbent president in an election where only two candidates won electoral votes. Also, Jimmy Carter is the first incumbent Democrat to serve only one full term since Martin Van Buren 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 Englandmarker, fueled by liberal Republicans who felt Reagan was too far to the right; his best showing was in Massachusettsmarker, 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 Alaskamarker, where he received 12% of the vote. As of 2008, this is the best performance by a Libertarian presidential candidate.

Reagan won 53% of the vote in reliably Democratic South Boston.


Source (Popular Vote):

Source (Electoral Vote):

Close states

Margin of victory less than 5%

  1. Massachusetts, 0.15%
  2. Tennessee, 0.29%
  3. Arkansas, 0.61%
  4. Alabama, 1.30%
  5. Mississippi, 1.32%
  6. Kentucky, 1.46%
  7. South Carolina, 1.53%
  8. Hawaii, 1.90%
  9. North Carolina, 2.12%
  10. Delaware, 2.33%
  11. New York, 2.67%
  12. Maryland, 2.96%
  13. Maine, 3.36%
  14. Minnesota, 3.94%
  15. West Virginia, 4.51%
  16. Wisconsin, 4.72%

Voter demographics

Social groups and the presidential vote, 1980 and 1976
Size '80 Carter '80 Reagan '80 Anderson '76 Carter '76 Ford
Democratic 43 66 26 6 77 22
Independent 23 30 54 12 43 54
Republican 28 11 84 4 9 90
Liberal 18 57 27 11 70 26
Moderate 51 42 48 8 51 48
Conservative 31 23 71 4 29 70
Black 10 82 14 3 82 16
Hispanic 2 54 36 7 75 24
White 88 36 55 8 47 52
Female 48 45 46 7 50 48
Male 52 37 54 7 50 48
Protestant 46 37 56 6 44 55
White Protestant 41 31 62 6 43 57
Catholic 25 40 51 7 54 44
Jewish 5 45 39 14 64 34
Family income
Less than US$10,000 13 50 41 6 58 40
$10,000–$14,999 15 47 42 8 55 43
$15,000–$24,999 29 38 53 7 48 50
$25,000–$50,000 24 32 58 8 36 62
Over $50,000 5 25 65 8
Professional or manager 39 33 56 9 41 57
Clerical, sales, white-collar 11 42 48 8 46 53
blue-collar 17 46 47 5 57 41
Agriculture 3 29 66 3
Unemployed 3 55 35 7 65 34
Less than high school 11 50 45 3 58 41
High school graduate 28 43 51 4 54 46
Some college 28 35 55 8 51 49
College graduate 27 35 51 11 45 55
Union membership
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
Eastmarker 25 42 47 9 51 47
South 27 44 51 3 54 45
White South 22 35 60 3 46 52
Midwest 27 40 51 7 48 50
Far West 19 35 53 9 46 51
Community size
City over 250,000 18 54 35 8 60 40
Suburb/small city 53 37 53 8 53 47
Rural/town 29 39 54 5 47 53
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.

See also


  1. "Clinton Campaign Reminiscent of 1980 Race", The CBS News.
  2. "Steenland: Odd man out?", The Star Tribune.
  3. William DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, Gramercy 1997
  4. [1]
  5. Wayne, Stephen J. (1984). The Road to the White House (2nd ed.), p. 210. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-68526-2.
  6. [2], CRS Report RL33305, The Crude Oil Windfall Profit Tax of the 1980s: Implications for Current Energy Policy, by Salvatore Lazzari, p. 5.
  8. Facts on File 1980 Yearbook, p.844
  9. Facts on File Yearbook 1980 p865
  10. Facts on File Yearbook 1980 p838

Further reading


Journal articles

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