Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election because he expressed confidence, poise, and brought hope and direction to a nation desperately in need of it. Carter lost because of the turmoil he faced during his first term as president and his lack of assurance in his ability to handle it or bring change and because he attacked Reagan too vehemently.
Ronald Reagan promised change and instilled confidence in the American people and this largely secured him the 1980 election. Reagan’s campaign sought and promised to fix all of the many issues facing the nation in the late 1970s such as stagflation and increased tensions abroad and he suggested fixes that were vague, contradictory, and impractical in reality. These plans included cutting government spending while simultaneously increasing military expenditures, increasing the size of the military with the goal of world peace, or claiming that decreased spending would bring back prosperity with no explanation of why. These plans were all united in one aspect however, they offered a sense of hope to the nation and suggested that Reagan had a plan to return prosperity and stability to a nation in dire need. This strategy was directly adopted from the advice of Cicero to “bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you” and do to so through “vague generalities”. Reagan came to be known as the “great deflector” as he skillfully avoided answering difficult questions and describing details of his plans that were difficult or unclear and although this appears negative in doing so he avoided exposing many negatives and put on the façade that he had answers and methods to fix the nation. Reagan also utilized the campaign strategy of obtaining celebrity endorsements when he had Reverend Jerry Falwell support him and try to create the “moral majority”. The reverend tried to appeal to citizens who viewed Reagan as more moral and searched for a greater sense of religious morality in backlash to the turbulence of the 1960s and 70s. This sense of direction and poise that Reagan and his campaign embodied excited the American people and got them excited about the possibility of success and stability that the nation lacked under Carter in his first term.
Incumbent candidate Jimmy Carter lost the election of 1980 because of his weak first term and his inability to express confidence or suggest that great change would occur in his second. Carter lacked strength in his campaigning when he refused to debate Reagan and made several speaking errors that suggested a lack of control and direction over the nation. His refusal to debate Reagan made him appear weak and fearful and caused Reagan to claim that Carter was desperately trying to stay in office and didn’t have any real ideas or incentives for the nation. Carter countered criticism when he suggested that the whole nation was suffering from a lack of confidence, which came off as a deflection of responsibility from the government and from himself. He also made mistakes with good intentions for example when he attempted to relate himself to voters by discussing enlisting the help of his daughter on a nuclear arms issue he appeared to be unable to handle the issue himself or seek suitable counsel. Carter’s previous term, whether his fault or not, was one in which the American economy was in shambles and foreign enemies attacked from every corner and Carters platform suggested little change and promised little revitalization which resulted in only 9% of voters claiming that they felt personally interested and excited about him. Carter also seemed weak and incompetent when he tried to run a smear campaign against Reagan but instead came off as too harsh and mean hearted. This anger towards Reagan became apparent when the two did debate and Carter appeared as if he was going to “slug” his competitor. This inability to maintain a persona of composure and power lost Carter many voters. Altogether a range of factors such as his lack of composure and misspeaking contributed to his losing of the election but most fundamentally he fell short because he offered little change from his previous and largely unsuccessful term and did not excite the people with innovation.
This election highlights a fundamental truth in most elections, which is that the people want the appearance of power and the promise of prosperity, they do not want the truth and they do not want to have to take the responsibility. When Carter suggested that the problems of the nation stemmed from the mindsets of the voters he isolated himself from the people as they expected a leader who would take responsibility and initiative in fixing the problems of the nation. This is exactly what Reagan offered, whether concretely backed up or not, he promised change and a return to the excellence and morality that many citizens felt had been lost in the tumultuous recent times.
*This photo shows the confidence Reagan embodied and the hope he instilled in citizens to return to the powerful and stable America they had once known.
"Republican Party Platform." Address, Republican National Convention, Detroit,
Michigan, July 15, 1980.
"Democratic Party Platform." Address, Democratic National Convention, New York, New York, August 11, 1980.
Shogan, Colleen, Dr. Presidential Campaigns and the Congressional Agenda:
Reagan, Clinton, and Beyond. Report. Washington DC: George Mason
The University of Virginia Miller Center. "Ronald Wilson Reagan: Campaigns and Elections." American President: A Reference Resource. http://millercenter.org/president/reagan/essays/biography/3.