The 1980 election between Ronald Reagan and incumbent Jimmy Carter was a rare election in American politics. It is not often that the candidate challenging an incumbent wins. In this case, the incumbent was seen as incompetent and the challenger was so well liked by the people. In this election, the incumbent from the Democratic party, Jimmy Carter, lost to the challenger from the Republican party, Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter, who was president from 1977 to 1981 had an awful term leading up to the election. His presidency had been seen as a failure. The United State’s relationship with the superpower of the Soviet Union was gripped with tension. Iranians had Americans held hostage. The economy was experiencing a period of gross “negative growth.” The American people, as they so often do, blamed the struggles of the country on the president, Carter. They were ready for a change.
This change came through democracy. The primary election proposed a number of strong Democrat candidates. Carter was a Democrat, but his reputation as a capable president was already falling quickly. The party’s runners were Jimmy Carter, William Proxmire, Jerry Brown, and the big threat to Carter, Edward Kennedy. Early on, it seemed that Carter would be easily outdone by mainly Kennedy. Nearing the end of the primaries, it became apparent that Kennedy did not know what his actual policy views were, and it seemed that he was riding on the familiarity of his name and the failure of Carter. The people did not like that he looked even more inadequate than Carter and the incumbent won the primary.
The Republican party had a wide array of candidates for the primary election. This large selection may have helped Reagan, who would later win the presidency, because the less likely candidates pulled votes away from George H.W. Bush, the closest rival for the nomination. Reagan was the top dog in this election, and would ultimately easily win the primaries.
Reaching the general election, Reagan was favored to win. He was able to coast through the primaries and he was a people’s favorite. Movie star, football player, and now politician, he was an all American man. Reagan also served in the military despite serving only a supporting role based on his poor eyesight. He was all things that Americans look for in an ideal leader. Carter on the other hand, had proved a poor president, and he had a tough time in the primaries. Reagan used Carter’s poor performance to his advantage. He asked the people of America in one debate, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” (Ronald Reagan 1980) He was trying to draw attention to Carter’s inadequacy. Carter was noticeably and intentionally absent in the first debate. He didn’t attend because John Anderson, the Independent Party candidate would also be debating. Reagan was suddenly ahead. As a result, Carter determined it necessary to bring down Reagan’s reputation. This was his strategy in debates. He constantly belittled Reagan and essentially insulted him. Reagan made it a point to sluff off these insults rather nonchalantly. This disposition gave him the air of superiority. Carter also took Reagan’s platform of defense and framed it to say that he was a warmonger. He also framed Reagan to seem as though his economic plan was trying to further the gap between the upper and lower classes. In return to these attacks, Reagan pointed to Carter’s failed presidency and the America that he created instead of pointing to Carter himself. The people saw this as further evidence promoting Reagan’s strength.
Carter’s inferior term became a hot topic of the debates. The hallmarks of the last four years were part of what the American people saw as issues, so naturally they were discussed throughout the campaign. Carter tried to attack Reagan’s person, likely the sign of a sinking ship, while Reagan focused on the issues at hand and Carter’s poor term. The two biggest issues were foreign affairs and the economy. A smaller issue was civil rights, but this wasn’t as controversial it was twenty years before.
America had strained relationships with Iran and the Soviet Union. The tension with Iran came as a result of revolution. There was political and religious upheaval in Iran forcing the Shah (like their king) to flee the country. He came to America to be treated for cancer. Iranians became upset with America when they found that the Shah was receiving refuge on American soil. The Iranians attacked the American embassy in Iran and took Americans hostage. The debaters found this issue an easy thing to talk about.
The Soviet Union maintained a large standing army during the cold war. Americans saw this as a real threat. Carter had already enabled a trade embargo on the Soviet Union. He did nearly everything in his power to demote the actions of the Soviet Union, but they were still seen as powerful. People were living in legitimate fear and thought something should be done about it. Reagan used this fear to promote increased defense spending. It could be reasoned that if he could play off the fear of Americans, given Jimmy Carter’s track record, he could win the election, thereby the presidency. Carter saw the state of the economy and argued that the last thing America needed was more spending. He did not account for Reagan’s economic plan
America was struggling economically going into the 1980 election. Reagan came into the fight with a four step plan to fix the United States economy. It was called Reaganomics. He hoped that by introducing trickle-down economics, the country could help Americans out. The first step of his plan was to cut taxes to citizens on the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum. By doing this, the hope is to allow for the more wealthy citizens and businesses invest in order to gain profit. When businesses profit in a capitalist system, their employees see the benefits. The American people are the employees of these businesses therefore, by making tax cuts on the wealthy, all levels of Americans see benefits. His second step was to cut spending on the government. This step is simple financial strategy. If you spend less money, your deficit does not rise as fast. It gives you a chance to catch up. The other benefit of cutting government spending is the money can go to other places to help the economy. The third step of Reagan’s economic plan was to regulate private businesses less. When businesses have more room to breathe, they make more profit. This profit then allows them to reinvest and make more money just like in step one. When a business is producing more, the supply of their product goes up. When supply goes up, the laws of supply and demand say that the price of that product will fall. This allowed Americans to buy more of the product further increasing the business. Finally, Reagan wanted to decrease inflation. By doing so he could essentially make the dollar worth more. The way he proposed to reduce inflation was to pump less money into domestic hands. Again, Carter claimed that Reagan wanted to reduce the lower class and promote the upper class. He hinted at Reagan’s plan as being racist.
The lower class at this time was mostly black. This was a part of Carter’s platform. He wanted to attack the character of Reagan and call him a racist who did not care about the working class of Americans. He hoped that by framing Reagan this way, along with the schema of the Democratic Party being the minorities party, he could win the votes of the lower to middle classes. Carter wanted to demonize Reagan and make people think that if he was in power he would actively fight against their interests.
Reagan won the election by a landslide. He received 489 electoral votes out of 538. That is just over ninety percent of the possible electoral college votes. He also won the popular vote. Reagan won this election justly. He was the only true option in 1980. His economic plan showed a promising future in fixing the financial struggle of many Americans. His plan was not full of empty promises. Unlike some proposed plans of other presidents, Reagan’s plan was clear and detailed. He wanted to promote growth of business instead of increasing revenue for the government. He displayed a likeable personality despite being firm in his policies. This could come across as the makings of a great diplomat. A superior quality diplomat is what America needed during the tensions of the cold war. The concept of foreign relations was in the forefront of the American mind. This undoubtedly contributed to Reagan’s successful run at the presidency. The American people simply could not re-elect Carter after his catastrophic failure in office, especially when a promising candidate like Reagan was running against him. The change that so many Americans longed for was at their doorstep and they were ready to embrace it.