THE QUESTION OF CHARACTER: CHARACTER AND THE ELECTION OF 1980

The election of the president of The United States of America is one of the most important ceremonies for the United States, as a country. In this act, Americans choose who they wish to be their leader—and the leader of the free world—for the next four years. As such, one would think that a voter would take into account every aspect of the candidates into consideration when making their choices. This, however, is not the case. For many, the platforms of the candidates are not as important to their choice as much as how the candidates make them feel. It was this very notion that gave Ronald Reagan his stunning victory over incumbent candidate Jimmy Carter. While the election itself focused on many issues, such as US-Soviet relations, America’s economic decline, and civil rights issues, many Americans cast their vote based on their perception of Ronald Reagan as the better leader. The main issue that cost Carter the election was ‘the meanness issue,’ an issue brought up as a counter to his accusations against Reagan as being a warmonger and thus unfit to have control over the United States’ nuclear arsenal. This attitude was spun by the Reagan campaign to seem like Carter was unfairly attacking Reagan, which painted Carter as an unfair judge of character, which thus called into question Carter’s own character. This led to the root of ‘the meanness issue’, that people perceived that Carter’s actions as president and his attitude toward others made him unfit to hold office. The main cause of Carter’s downfall was lack of confidence in his character.

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In contemporary accounts, many saw that the public perceptions of Carter ultimately cost him the election. In their book, Blue Smoke and Mirrors, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover reference this issue heavily. During his presidency, many Americans views Carter in a positive light. “They thought he was a very religious man of goodwill; that he was an honest, sincere, and fair man. If he had faults, they lay elsewhere.”[1] Over the course of the election cycle, the Reagan campaign worked to erode this idea. Their main instrument in causing the electorate to doubt Carter was Carter himself. Carter frequently attacked Reagan the issue of war and the Reagan campaign reacted strongly against this, calling Reagan’s want to bolster the military, not an act of war, but rather a call to ensure the safety of the United States. The campaign fervently insisted that Carter was working to attack Reagan’s character. This is despite evidence to the contrary. On several occasions Reagan called for aggressive action against foreign powers, but this did not matter to the voters.[2] Reagan’s war-like tendencies were not in the spotlight at the time, and the whole nation was focused on Carter’s attacks on Reagan’s ‘character.’

In an interview with the New York Times after Reagan’s win against Carter, then Vice President, Walter Mondale reflected on the troubles of Carters campaign. “I think circumstances were very heavily against us. Economics, inflation, prime rates, unemployment, the hostage issue, the frustrations of U.S.-Soviet relations—none of these made people feel good about what was going on. We happened to be in office and we took the blame.”[3] Not only did Carter have to contend with reputation during the election cycle, he also had to contend with his reputation as president for the past four years. Every failure of his presidency came to light during the election cycle and he found himself at fault even for things that were out of his control. A main point of this being that the economy was beginning to stagnate. While Carter’s strategies were not explicitly damaging the economy, neither were they working to bolster economic growth. The electorate could determine for themselves what a Carter presidency would hold, and at this point, many were tired of the way things were going. The people were ready for something new.[4]

Another major issue for the Carter campaign was Carter’s lack of vision. In his post-mortem analysis of the election for the New York Times, Terence Smith criticizes Carter for his inability to describe his future for American. Rather than describing to the electorate why his future would be a positive change for the American people, Carter would describe how life would be worse under a Reagan presidency. Even when Carter does speak of a positive change, he doesn’t manage to get very much coverage from the media, and Smith identifies the reason behind this a failure “in conceding that his first term had been less than successful.” [5] In addition to this, Carter didn’t have a catchy slogan. More than anything, the easiest way to catch the attention of voters is a simple slogan. This is succinct way to express your vision, and conjures the idea that a candidate knows how he foresees the future. Carter did not have this. Because of this, he found himself having difficult relating to the electorate, and thus dug his heels in with the strategy of attacking Reagan, ultimately attacking Reagan on issues that the Republican Candidate had long ago put to rest.[6]

The issue of these character attacks became the primary focus of the Reagan campaign, as they ate away at the public perception of Carter’s capacity for leadership. Richard Wirthlin, an advisor for the Reagan campaign, used the question of Carter’s leadership ability as central to his strategy for defeating Carter. His strategy began with ensuring that people were confident in Ronald Reagan’s ability to lead, and that began with singing praise of Reagan’s period as governor of California. This was followed by remaining on the defensive while Carter attacked Reagan. They wouldn’t go on the attack until the October 28 debate. This was done to give Reagan the impression of being competent and levelheaded. This strategy worked well.

“We saw the opportunity for a role reversal—that is, by the end of the campaign, I think we came very close to having people look upon Ronald Reagan as more Presidential than Jimmy Carter.” – Richard Wirthlin[7]

The key focus is, once again, not on any one platform issue, but rather on the character of the two men running. Thanks to the brilliant strategy the Reagan campaign, many lost faith in Jimmy Carter’s ability to lead.

“His victory was surely not so much an endorsement of his philosophy as an overwhelming rejection of Jimmy Carter, a President who could not convince the nation that he mastered his job.”[8] This is what George Church, a journalist for Time Magazine, had to say about Reagan’s election to president, and for the most part, this held true. People didn’t want more of the same. Many people, especially the working class, believed that Carter had ignored them during his term as president, and they felt that anyone who wasn’t Carter was worthy of their vote.[9] The numbers reflect this as well, with exit polls showing that Reagan had a slight lead with blue collar workers (+1%) and a much more substantial lead among those who worked in agriculture (+37%). In addition to this, those that thought their financial status had degraded since Carter had come to office showed strong support for Reagan (+39%).[10] Carter’s negative image was his ultimate downfall in this election. Many did not trust him to make their lives better so, despite his flaws, the people chose to elect Ronald Reagan as the President of the United States.

Historical accounts agree with the contemporary that character played a crucial role for the presidential election of 1980. Robert Banker, who wrote his dissertation on the various political blunders of the election of 1980, describes Carter’s descriptions of Reagan as politically damaging. This was not a gaffe—a term which describe a spontaneous action which causes damage to someone or something’s character and which the dissertation focuses heavily on—but rather, this was a calculated action which backfired dramatically. In his accusation of Reagan being a warmonger, Carter damaged his own campaign, but Banker believes that the damage done to Reagan’s image was more severe.[11] The true problem with what Carter had said was in a remark he had made while speaking to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He “implied that Reagan welcomed the support of the Ku Klux Klan” but this was simply not the case. While the Klan had endorsed him, Reagan did not accept their support. This is where the doubt regarding Carter’s character began to fester.[12] From then on, Carter’s words were examined with sever scrutiny. The damage to his trustworthiness cost him dearly. Now, any accusations against Reagan by the Carter campaign could be called into question, and it was child’s play for the Reagan campaign to brush away criticism as being unfair. The ultimate result was a degradation of the already weakening trust of Carter.

Instead of placing the blame on Carter, Gil Troy turns the issue around and instead credits Reagan for inspiring those that voted for him, it being an invitation to join Reagan, rather than an escape from Carter’s failure. While describing the election of 1980 in his book Morning in America, Troy describes Reagan as a populist, drawing in those who felt forgotten by the system. He changed the face of the Republican party, making it appeal to both the white-collar worker and the blue-collar worker. By appealing to the “forgotten men,” Reagan managed to turn many of those disillusioned people into his own supporters.[13] Unlike his predecessors, Reagan was an ardent optimist. Despite the myriad of problems that America faced following the upcoming election, Reagan was steadfast in his bright demeanor, confident that American could tackle any problem that came its way.[14] It was this confidence that lured outsiders into the Republican party and led the electorate to vote Reagan into office. The American people fed off the optimism that Reagan exuded and began to feel hope for a bright future. Their confidence in his character was the ultimate cause of his victory.

“Presidential campaigns are driven in a large part by personality, not party.”[15] While examining both contemporary and historical account, it’s easy to see that the public perception of a candidate plays a large part in election process. This is arguably more important than anything else when a voter goes to choose a candidate. This is especially so in the election of 1980.  While Mondale placed the blame of Carter’s loss on unfortunate circumstances surrounding Carter’s presidency, others, such as Smith, Germond, and Clymer placed the blame on Carter himself, both for his poor performance as president and for his attacks on Reagan’s demeanor, causing the electorate to question his judgement. Banker goes even further by suggesting that Carter’s attacking of Reagan wasn’t to blame, but rather his gaffe in implying that Reagan was in league with the Ku Klux Klan was the real culprit of Carter’s loss. Still others, Troy and Church, gave the recognition to Reagan for being a refreshing change compared to Carter. The question of Carter’s judgement, trustworthiness, and leadership ability, in addition to Reagan’s image as a confident optimist, shaped the outcome of the 1980 election, more so than the platforms of either candidate.

[1] Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover, Blue Smoke and Mirrors: How Reagan Won and Why Carter Lost the Election (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 245.

[2] Germond and Witcover, Blue Smoke, 247.

[3] Walter Mondale, “Mondale’s Views on Election Loss and the Future,” New Yorker, December 21, 1980, 38.

[4] Mondale, “Mondale’s Views,” 38.

[5] Terence Smith, “Carter Post-Mortem: Debate Hurt But Wasn’t Only Cause for Defeat,” New Yorker, December 9, 1980, 1.

[6] Smith, “Carter Post-Mortem,” 1.

[7] Special to The New York Times, “Reagan Pollster Says Carter’s Leadership Was Key Issue,” New York Times, November 6, 1980, A26.

[8] George J. Chruch, “Reagan Coast-to-Coast,” Time, November 17, 1980, 5.

[9] Chruch, “Reagan,” 5.

[10] Adam Clymer “Displeasure With Carter Turned Many to Reagan,” New York Times, November 9, 1980, 28.

[11] Stephen Robert Banker, “He Who Gaffes Last: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Gaffes of Reagan and Carter in the 1980 General Election Campaign (Presidential)” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 1984), 83.

[12] Banker, “He Who Gaffes,” 79-18.

[13] Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s (Politics and Society in Modern America) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 42-43.

[14] Troy, Morning, 35-36.

[15] Anderson, David. Twitter Post. November 11, 2016, 8:55 PM. https://twitter.com/AndersonDavidM/status/797301716475641856.

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