U.S. presidential election, 1980

From Academic Kids

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Presidential electoral votes by state.

The U.S. presidential election of 1980 featured a contest between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan. Carter was unpopular because of a stagnant economy at home and a deteriorating situation abroad, especially in the Middle East where the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had marked serious American setbacks. Reagan, the charismatic ex-Governor of California, capitalized on this unpopularity and won a lopsided victory over Carter.



Through the 1970s, the United States was experiencing a long period of low economic growth, high inflation, and intermittent energy crises. By the beginning of the election season, the prolonged Iran hostage crisis added to a general feeling of a national "malaise" that followed the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War.


Republican Party nomination


Toward the beginning of the race, the establishment favorite was George Bush, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and chairman of the Republican National Committee. However, in the initial debates, conservative Ronald Reagan emerged as a serious candidate, sparring with Bush on economic issues.

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Ronald Reagan giving his Acceptance Speech at the Republican National Convention, Detroit, Michigan. 7/17/80.

Reagan was an adherent to a policy known as "supply side economics." Supply-side economists led the assault on the welfare state built up by the New Deal and Great Society. They assumed that the woes of the U.S. economy were in large part a result of excessive taxation (de-emphasizing the role of high foreign policy, the rise of overseas competition, and massive expenditures on Vietnam), which "crowded out" money away from private investors and thus stifled economic growth. The solution, they argued, was to offer generous benefits to corporations and wealthy taxpayers in order to encourage new investments and to cut benefits geared toward the poor.

Reagan promised an economic revival that would affect all sectors of the population. But since cutting taxes would reduce government revenues, it would also be necessary to target "big government." Otherwise, large federal deficits might negate the effects of the tax cut by requiring the government to borrow in the marketplace, thus raising interest rates and drying up capital for investment once again. Thus, Reagan promised a drastic cut in "big government," which he pledged would produce a balanced budget for the first time since 1969. Bush famously called Reagan's economic policy "voodoo economics."

Bush won the Iowa caucuses, and Reagan won big in the New Hampshire primary, causing most of the other candidates to drop out of the race. Anderson dropped out of the primary, running an independent bid. Reagan went on to win most of the subsequent primaries and caucuses, securing the Republican Party nomination. There was wide speculation that Reagan would ask Gerald Ford to be his running mate, but instead Reagan chose Bush.

Democratic Party nomination


President Carter's prospects for reelection were weakened by a primary challenge by liberal icon Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy, although a far more magnetic personality than Carter and beloved by the Democratic base, could not transcend personal controversies, most notably a 1969 automobile accident at Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts that had left a young woman dead. Carter easily won the nomination at the Democratic convention. The party also renominated Walter Mondale for vice president.

Other nominations

Liberal Republican John Bayard Anderson, after being defeated in the Republican primary, entered the general election as an Independent candidate because of his opposition to the more conservative policies of Reagan.

General election


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Ronald Reagan campaigning with Nancy Reagan in Columbia, South Carolina. 10/10/80.

1980 is considered by some to be a realigning election. Reagan ran a campaign of upbeat optimism, together with implications of a more militarily aggressive foreign policy. This contrasted with the "malaise" ridden attitude of the late Carter administration and its apparent impotence in the face of the Iran hostage crisis. Towards the end of the campaign, as Carter's poll numbers continued to slip and Reagan's rose, Carter responded with more militaristic rhetoric and announced plans to bring back the military draft; this succeeded only in alienating some of Carter's supporters.

Reagan promised an end to the drift in post-Vietnam and post-Iran hostage US foreign policy and a restoration of the nation's military strength. Reagan also promised an end to "big government" and to restore economic health by implementing a supply-side economic policy.

Critics charged that Reagan's attacks on the welfare state were merely demagogic, appealing to a white middle class insensitive to the continued plights to victims of socio-economic injustice and with little understanding of the international forces creating the economic problems plaguing the country since the end of the Vietnam War.

As in most elections fought against an incumbent, the voters already had a clear impression of Carter, which was largely negative by this time, and both sides spent most of their effort trying to define Reagan, the challenger. The campaign was largely negative, with many voters disliking Carter but also perceiving Reagan as an intellectual lightweight, possibly unable to handle the presidency and with various questionable policies.

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; moreover, it was a watershed ushering out the commitment to social justice characteristic of the 1960s civil rights movement and Great Society. It also signaled a commitment to a militaristic, aggressive foreign policy. 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.

Although Reagan's candidacy was burdened by Representative John B. Anderson of Illinois, a moderate Republican and primary opponent who ran as an independent, the three major issues of the campaign were far greater threats to Carter's prospects for reelection: the economy, national security, and the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter seemed unable to control inflation and had not succeeded in obtaining the release of US hostages in Tehran before the election, losing eight soldiers in a failed attempt to mount a rescue.

The election was held on November 4, 1980. Reagan won a narrow majority of the popular vote, and Republicans also gained control of the Senate for the first time in twenty-five years (see Reagan's coattails). Reagan received 43,904,153 votes in the election (50.7 percent of total votes cast), and Carter 35,483,883 (41.0 percent). The electoral college vote was a landslide, with 489 votes (representing 44 states) for Reagan and 49 for Carter (representing 6 states and the District of Columbia). John Anderson won no electoral votes, but got 5,720,060 popular votes. Anderson's share of the popular vote, totaling 6.6 percent, was moderately impressive for a third party candidate in the United States, demonstrating that a sizable share of moderate voters, while disenchanted with Carter, did not forget that only several years earlier Reagan was regarded as a dangerous far-right reactionary. Anderson's success in the liberal New England states where Democrats might have expected to do well contributed to Reagan's lopsided electoral college victory.

Libertarian Party candidate Ed Clark received 921,299 popular votes. 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; as of 2005, this is the best performance by a Libertarian presidential candidate. Citizens Party candidate Barry Commoner, on the ballots in 31 states, received 234,294 popular votes. His running mate, La Donna Harris, was the second known Native American to run for national office, after Charles Curtis in 1928.


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Source: U.S. Office of the Federal Register (http://www.archives.gov/federal_register/electoral_college/scores.html#1980)

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