Walter Mondale had been Vice President in the Carter administration; Geraldine Ferraro was a Congresswoman from Long Island. She was the first woman nominated on a presidential ticket. The Democrats had hoped that she would draw a large portion of the female electorate to their side. It did not work out that way.
The 1984 election was one of the largest landslide victories ever for the Republican ticket. A strong economic recovery that began in 1983 boosted Reagan’s approval ratings, and a renewal of national self-confidence by 1984 helped Reagan and Bush win a second term with an unprecedented number of electoral votes. The Electoral vote count was 525 (97.6%) for Reagan with 13 (2.4%) for Mondale. The popular vote total was 54,455,075 (58.77%) for Reagan and 37,577,185 (41.03%) for Mondale. Reagan lost only Washington, DC and Minnesota (Mondale’s home state).
Reagan ran on the strength of his first term. The President’s popularity had risen dramatically since its nadir in late 1982, largely because the economic boom that had begun in 1983 picked up steam the following year. Lower inflation, reduced tax rates, less joblessness, and a robust gross national product provided Reagan and his supporters with a litany of economic accomplishments. In foreign affairs, a massive defense build-up and the President’s “carry a big stick” rhetoric (“The USSR was the Evil Empire”) led many Americans to conclude that Reagan was protecting the nation’s interests and its international stature.
Mondale’s strategy was to acknowledge Reagan’s popularity but question his policies. Mondale criticized that Reagan’s tax cuts benefited the rich. He also claimed that the President endorsed a conservative social agenda-opposing abortion rights and favoring prayer in schools-that was out of touch with the American mainstream. Mondale warned that Republican fiscal policies had created huge budget deficits that endangered the nation’s long-term economic health. In a tactic that showed more honesty than political good sense, Mondale reiterated his acceptance speech promise that he would raise taxes to balance the federal budget. Finally, Mondale miscalculated by repeatedly suggesting that Reagan was too old for the presidency.
The candidates held two debates in October 1984. Reagan was ill prepared for his first televised debate. He stumbled over lines and responded ineffectively to Mondale’s charges that he favored reduction of Social Security and Medicare benefits. Reagan’s poor performance had done what the Democrats had been unable to do: raise the issue of whether he was too old to be President. However, Reagan’s numbers soared even higher after the second debate. In the aftermath of the second debate, Reagan’s lead shot up to 17 percentage points. Throughout the remainder of the campaign, it would never dip below 15 percentage points.
Reagan’s second term was primarily marked by foreign matters, such as the ending of the Cold War, the 1986 bombing of Libya, and the revelation of the Iran-Contra affair. (See discussion in the following chapters of the Songbook: Reagan’s Central American Foreign Policy, Eastern Europeans against the Soviet Union and The Collapse of the Soviet Union.)