The Presidential election of 1980 – Reagan (and George H. W. Bush) v. Carter (and Walter Mondale)

Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the election of 1976. In the presidential campaign of 1980, Carter not only had to defend his administration of the previous four years, he had to convince the electorate that he was a better candidate than Ronald Reagan. He failed miserably. Reagan garnered slightly more than half of the popular vote as compared to Carter’s 41%.  Reagan achieved an overwhelming 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. (Third party candidate, John Anderson, won 7% of the popular vote with no electoral votes.) Carter carried only six states and the District of Columbia.

By the time the 1980 campaign had begun, the country was increasingly dissatisfied with liberal, Democratic big government, which produced high inflation, increased unemployment (“stagflation”) and falling incomes. Opposition to the status quo ran so deep that the electorate decided to give a former movie star a chance in the White House.  Reagan took advantage of his training as an actor; he was called “the Great Communicator”, as compared to the soft-spoken peanut farmer from Georgia. He formulated what became a surefire applause line of his campaign: “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his”. Speaking to Detroit autoworkers in October 1980, Reagan described what he saw as the American Dream under Democratic president Jimmy Carter. The family garage may have still held two cars, cracked Reagan, but they were “both Japanese and they’re out of gas.” The charismatic former governor of California suggested that a once-proud nation was running on empty.

Inflation was probably the single most important campaign issue. Years of government spending on the Vietnam War and The Great Society domestic programs of Lyndon Johnson, combined with Johnson’s refusal to raise taxes to pay for the costs of government, led to massive inflationary pressures with rapidly increasing prices in the early 1970s. Large increases in government spending and the decision of the Federal Reserve Board to keep interest rates low (from 1969 until 1979) led to the “great inflation” as prices soared throughout the decade.

Additional inflationary pressures resulted from rising energy prices between 1972 and 1979 linked to OPEC and political instability in the Middle East. Inflation had increased from 6 percent during the Republican-Ford administration (1974-76) to more than 12 percent during Carter’s first year in office (1976), and unemployment and interest rates were also high. Consumer prices climbed by 6.8 percent in 1977, by 9 percent in 1978 and then, in 1979, under the additional impact of the second, OPEC-induced oil shock, by 13.3 percent.

Economists developed a metric to measure the economic pain caused by this combination of economic forces. It was called the “misery index” – interest + inflation + unemployment. During the election cycle, the Fed funds interest rate soared to 20%, meaning interest on mortgages approached 20%; inflation was 12.2% at the time of the election, and the unemployment rate was 7.5%. These numbers, collectively, were astronomical, virtually impossible for the Democrats to defend.

Another significant campaign issue centered on U.S.- Middle East relations. The Shah of Iran was deposed in a popular revolution in 1978. He’d been one of America’s more thuggish allies in the preceding two decades, but Carter, who believed the U.S. should act with moral authority in the world, never liked him and refused to prop him up against his own people.

The Iranian revolution led to an oil/gas crisis in the U.S. when Islamic regimes shut off oil imports in retaliation to the negative reaction to the Shah’s overthrow.  Shortages of oil led to spike in gas prices, and long lines at gas stations. People had to get up in the middle of the night to get in line for a limited amount of gas at the gas pumps, only to be told a few hours later that the supply had been exhausted.

The public was forced to make sacrifices and conserve by turning down thermostats to a suggested 65 degrees, turning off lights, reducing the use of toilets, which led to this infamous ditty: “If its yellow, let in mellow; if its brown, flush it down”.

Carter began to deal with the new post-Shah Iranian government. Relations were improving until Carter made a fateful decision in October 1979 to allow the dying Shah, on humanitarian grounds, to enter the United States for medical treatment. The reaction in Tehran was violent. Students protesting Carter’s decision to allow the Shah into the U.S. for medical treatment took over the U.S. Embassy and held 52 hostages for 444 days. For Carter, this turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.

In November 1979, 52 Americans in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were taken hostage by Iranian students. Everyone, from the most junior staff members to the person in charge of the embassy, were taken and held in captivity for 444 days. Closely following the crisis for over a year, the public wanted to show their support for the hostages and their families. Yellow ribbons became the symbol of hope for their safe return.

The yellow ribbon refers to a popular song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” written in 1972 and released in 1973 by the group Tony Orlando and Dawn. It became a hit. \While the song itself has nothing to do with being taken hostage, it was a familiar tune that reminded the public of the hope and anticipation of welcoming a loved one home.

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the old Oak Tree, Tony Orlando and Dawn,

The Hostages – John David Wages

We couldn’t be home for the holidays, Jailed over here in Iran. But we’ll keep on clingin’ to that Star-Spangled banner, Though we may never see home again.

We’re still real nephews of our Uncle Sam, Born on the fourth of July. Yes we’re still real Yankee-Doodle Dandies, And we’ll be that way ‘til we die.

We know that we’re causing a worried time, Yes we know we’re causing a fuss. But we’ll never give up on America, America, don’t give up on us.

We’re still real nephews of our Uncle Sam, Born on the fourth of July. Yes we’re still real Yankee-Doodle Dandies, And we’ll be that way ‘til we die. And we’ll be that way ‘til we die.

(Spoken:) From the place that’s called the Empire State, to Frisco’s golden gate; from the snow along the Alaskan way, to the gulf’s soft, warm spray; that’s heaven on earth, that’s the USA. Lord, how we pray for you today. God, we miss home.

Carter could have won immediate freedom for the hostages by kicking the Shah out of the country. But Carter would not treat a dying man in such an inhumane way. Carter could also have secured the hostages’ freedom by promising to sell Iran more weapons. Instead, Carter stood up to the hostage takers, and tried to negotiate for the release of the Americans. Fatefully, Carter approved an attempted Special Forces rescue operation that was a miserable failure. The failed rescue mission reinforced Reagan’s charge that the Democrats had allowed the country’s military to deteriorate badly. Hypocritically, after Reagan won the election, he secretly sold weapons to Tehran.

Reagan campaigned on several principal issues, the most significant of which was a new economic disease that came to be called “stagflation,” a combination of economic stagnation and inflation.  The Republican platform inconsistently promised steep tax cuts, increased defense spending, and a balanced budget, plus a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. “It was the first serious effort to rein in the welfare state.” Reagan also stressed the communist threat abroad and the dire effects that “big government” was having on the country’s economy, but he never clearly spelled out his remedies beyond calling for a massive cut in income taxes.

Carter spent most of the campaign attempting to paint Reagan as an extremist, who would divide the nation and tend to shoot from the hip in international relations. Carter adopted a tactic from the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater race – he painted Reagan as a “trigger happy” war hawk, who would lead the country into a devastating conflict with USSR.  After the failed hostage recuse operation, this tactic failed to gain traction and was abandoned quickly. Carter promised strong support for environmental regulations and assured voters he would protect abortion rights.

By mid-October, Carter had closed the considerable gap between him and Reagan, who clung to a small lead in most polls, which was within the margin of error. The Reagan and Carter camps had extensive negotiations about holding a debate, but until late in the campaign none was held. The candidates finally met in a nationally televised confrontation a week before the election. When they finished, it seemed to many observers that Carter had won on “substance” while Reagan, with his easygoing diffidence and moderate tone, had dispelled fears that he was the “dangerous” fanatic portrayed by Carter.

Reagan effectively reminded his national television audience of the country’s economic problems by asking, “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?” It is not surprising that Reagan beat Carter badly.

Additional songs that reflect the criticism of Jimmy Carter.