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Reagan vs. Carter: The 1980 Presidential Election
Morgan Hubbard
La Pietra Dialogues
March 5, 2013

I was -12 years old (that’s negative 12 years old, people!) during the 1980 presidential election so I don’t remember MUCH, but here’s what I do recall…

The almighty United States of America was going through some pretty serious struggles throughout the 1970’s. Plagued with low economic growth, high interest rates, an energy crisis and with Nixion’s resignation from the presidency in the summer of 1974, followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979, Americans needed someone to restore their faith in both domestic and foreign affairs. Enter Ronald Reagan. Having defeated George H.W. Bush and a slew of other candidates in the republican primaries, Reagan faced an uphill battle in the general election. Early on he promised to restore the nation’s military strength and economic health. But also fighting for the presidency was Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter, who was running for reelection. Carter was blamed by most of the country for the Iran hostage crisis, which sharpened public perceptions of a national decline. He was also widely criticized because he would often publically knock Reagan’s plans but never counter with remedies of his own.


Round One-

Going into the debate, most polls indicated that Reagan had a two to three point lead over Carter. The first debate was set on September 21st, 1980 and **SPOILER ALERT** Carter refused to take part. Carter’s absence resulted in less than half the average television viewers from past presidential debates. Carter’s absence left Reagan to face Republican Congressman John B. Anderson, who ran against Reagan in the Republican primaries but lost then reentered the elections as the independent candidate. Reagan used this opportunity to counter Carter’s claims that he was too conservative for the country by displaying exactly what Americans wanted, and needed, to see: optimism. Polls conducted after the debate indicated that Regan achieved his goal in softening his staunch conservative image and the public was left wondering: where had Carter gone?

News coverage for this debate:

The majority of news coverage for this debate seemed to be on who wasn’t at the debate, rather than who was. A number of theories surfaced on why Carter decided to skip out on the first debate. A 1980 New York Times article claimed that, “The event will not be truly Presidential because Jimmy Carter won´t be there. Mr. Carter says he won´t debate two Republicans. He´ll cheerfully debate Ronald Reagan but only one-on-one.” This article, along with others, seemed to report disappointment in the debate even describing it as, ”under dramatic and controlled” which is everything a presidential shouldn’t be. The Christian Science Monitor of Boston claimed that, “some presidential watchers have gone as far as to say it is the biggest political risk of Carter´s career.” The common consensus among reporters at the time of the “debate” was that it was indeed underwhelming and that Carter put himself in great danger by refusing to participate. This brings us to round two in which Americans all over the country wondered if Carter could redeem himself.

Round Two-

Carter decided to please everyone with his presence and participated in the second debate, most likely because Anderson was not invited to participate because he took a heavy beating in the polls. Just one week before the election, the stakes were high and both candidates came out swinging; Reagan was running on momentum from the last debate while Carter was trying to compensate for his absence. Priority issues included inflation, the energy crisis, terrorism and nuclear weapons. The highlights included Carter claiming he would cut Medicare and Reagan replying, “There you go again.” Carter presented all of the constituencies that benefitted from his programs and attempted to render Reagan as an irresponsible loose cannon on nuclear matters, which only resulted in what most analysts pinpointed as his weakest moment. Carter delivered a lengthy bit on nuclear weapons in which he described a conversation he had with his daughter claiming she responded, “nuclear weaponry” when he asked her what the most important issue was. This failed attempt to humanize and relate himself to the voters failed and Regan triumphed in presenting a moderate upbeat image and stressing his experience as governor. This debate was a dramatic fight to the finish leaving viewers on the edge of their seats indecisive about which candidate would win.

The news coverage on this debate:

An estimated 105 to 120 mission television viewers were captured with this second debate, an Associated Press Article notes. The same article describes the candidates, “Carter and Reagan started slowly like two boxers warily testing each other out in the opening round of a championship bout.” An article written by Don McLeod for the Associated Press claims that a panel of debate experts scored the debate and declared Reagan a bare one point winner over President Carter; three judges had Reagan as a narrow winner, two favored Carter and two called it a draw. Reports on Billy Carter’s reaction to his brother’s speech were also revealed. He claimed that his brother did great and he doubts the debate will affect the outcome of the coming election. The majority of reports after the debate claimed that the opinion polls were too close to call and with less than one week left untill election day it seemed to be a Reagan Carter toss up.

Thus, that is where my memory runs out leaving you hanging on the final results of the election. BUT, I will leave you with a lyric from Billy Joel’s famous song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which could clue you in on the winner of the election and some of the hot issues that were presented while in office: “Begin, Reagan, Palestine, terror on the airline, Ayatollah´s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan”….

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