For most Americans, the 1970s were a decade defined by economic decline and distrust in government. Many feared that American exceptionalism was dead. How would voters react as they looked toward a new decade?

The Last Four Years

In the wake of the Watergate Scandal, President Jimmy Carter hoped to return dignity and honesty to the Oval Office. His term began with several bold initiatives. He pardoned Vietnam draft dodgers, ended funding for the B-1 Bomber plane, and introduced a comprehensive consumer protection bill to Congress. Unfortunately, Carter’s refusal to play political games or make backroom deals with Congress became a weakness. Even though his own party controlled both houses, the consumer protection bill failed to pass. Carter responded with a veto of a public works package. A pattern of mutual distrust was established between the two branches.

Carter did find success, however, with energy policy. Despite the recent push for energy independence, oil imports had risen 65% annually since 1973. Over the course of Carter’s term, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) increased oil prices from $13 to $34 per barrel. Thanks to America’s heavy dependence on oil, this meant continued inflation. Carter signed a series of bills designed to increase domestic production and move the country away foreign oil. He also created the Department of Energy, which regulated existing energy supplies and funded research into new, preferably sustainable, sources. Carter’s strategy worked, though he continued to struggle with Congress. For the first time in 28 years, a presidential veto (of a bill repealing import fees) was overrode by a Congress controlled by his own party. Moments like this made Carter appear ineffectual. The average consumer did not see the effects of Carter’s policies, as the Iranian Revolution in 1979 brought the return of gas lines.

In addition to fighting with Congress, Carter had an adverse relationship with the media. The energy crisis was complex, and most people only understood that gas prices and taxes were high. Carter’s disinterest in bargaining with Congress made him seem arrogant and self-righteous. Thus, he was given little credit for his accomplishments and had a reputation of ineptitude. In reality, his success rate with Congress was higher than most of immediate predecessors and successors. Carter responded to the on-going economic worries in the worst way possible. In what became known as the “Malaise Speech,” Carter blamed the country’s problems on the lack of confidence by the public. Not only was this an admission that he was unpopular, but his inability to take responsibility did not sit well with viewers. To make matters worse, Carter fired four cabinet secretaries and forced the resignation of several lower level officials soon after his speech. The media speculated that he was losing control. Carter’s approval polls tanked and he never recovered.

Carter had four major foreign policy challenges, of varying levels of success. In Central America, he was tasked with resolving a decades-old debate over ownership of the Panama Canal. The US had occupied the Canal Zone since Teddy Roosevelt’s administration. In 1964, a series of anti-American riots in Panama prompted a promise for negotiations on the canal’s future. Ten years later, Henry Kissinger agreed to return the land to Panama by the end of the century. Negotiations dragged on over several administrations, eventually landing in Carter’s hands. Unwisely, he chose not to include any US senators in the agreements, leaving them in the dark until a treaty was signed and headed for ratification. Another embarrassment came when the Secretary of State claimed that the US would still be able to unilaterally defend the canal, which was denied by Panama. In response, the Senate passed the “Leadership Amendment,” to grant the US such authority. Although the treaty passed, Carter again appeared incompetent. Republicans took advantage of the controversy by blaming Carter for “giving away” the canal.

In regards to the Cold War, Carter hoped to continue the process of de-escalation started by Nixon. Unfortunately, Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan complicated that plan. Even though a strategic arms treaty (SALT II) had been signed, Russia’s renewed aggression led to a stall of its ratification by the Senate. Both governments still abided by its terms, but it was another failure for Carter. He responded to the invasion with a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The American public, however, mostly saw this as a punishment to athletes, rather than the Communists.

Carter’s only major foreign policy success came with the Camp David Accords. After the Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria in 1973, Israel retained control of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In September, 1978, Carter invited Israel’s prime minister and Egypt’s president to meet with him at Camp David. For almost two weeks, Carter mediated peace talks. Eventually, Israel agreed to withdraw from the peninsula and the US established monitoring posts to prevent future attacks from either side. Carter’s supporters hoped this victory would revive his presidency before the election.

Unfortunately, Carter’s chances took a turn, thanks to Iran. Britain controlled the country’s oil for the first half of the century, until they were forced out by a unpredictable new prime minister. The US feared that their absence would make Iran a target for Communist takeover. They subsequently staged a coup to remove the prime minister and restore power to the monarch – the Shah. In return, the Shah agreed to cede 80% of their oil to American and British interests. The Iranian people saw him as a puppet of the West. The Shah became increasingly ruthless. He outlawed rival political factions and established a secret police. By the time of Carter’s administration, hatred of the Shah was widespread in Iran. His strongest opponent was a radical Islamic group, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. In early 1979, the Shah was finally forced to flee Iran. Though he left power to a group of Western-friendly politicians, millions of Iranians marched on the capital to install the Ayatollah as the new leader. Carter allowed the Shah, who was dying from cancer, to seek refuge and medical treatment in the US. This enraged Muslim fundamentalists. In November, 1979, a group of student militants loyal to the Ayatollah stormed the American embassy in Iran and captured 66 Americans as hostages. They demanded the Shah’s return to stand trial, money that he had stashed outside Iran, and an apology from the “evil” America. Carter immediately froze billions of Iranian assets in the US and began secret negotiations, but had no success. The American media’s coverage of the crisis built up the public’s frustration. They frequently showed mobs of Muslims burning the American flag. Each night, they announced the number of days since the crisis began, emphasizing the prolonged nature of the situation. Americans became impatient. Internal fighting between Iranian leaders made things worse as they often made and broke promises. Eventually, Carter approved a secret military mission to free the hostages. The mission was a failure. Three of the eight helicopters carrying assault forces experienced mechanical problems, one of which crashed, killing eight soldiers. Iran subsequently dispersed the hostages to hideouts around the country, making rescue virtually impossible. The crisis carried on into the campaign season.

Killer Rabbit Pause

Like his predecessor, Gerald Ford, President Carter had an negative relationship with the press. One of the clearest examples was Carter’s, supposed, killer rabbit attack. On a fishing trip near his home in Georgia, the President encountered a “swamp rabbit,” that he shoo’ed away with his paddle. His Press Secretary relayed the humorous story to the media. Predictably, they used the image of Carter fighting off a rabbit to make him seem foolish and weak. The White House initially refused to release the photo, only making the myth more powerful. The photo was eventually made public, and depicts what should have clearly been a non-story.

Major Issues

Carter faced huge challenges on the economy, foreign policy, and trust in government. His inability to work with Congress and manage his image in the media negated any success he did have. It seemed like he was humiliated at every turn. American voters felt humiliated, too, as the country became overwhelmed with crises. More than any other issue, the Iran Hostage Crisis exemplified the public’s frustrations with Carter.

Party Watch

Due to his low approval rating, Carter was worried about losing his re-nomination. His concerns materialized when Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy announced his candidacy. Still relatively young, Kennedy brought a combination of excitement and nostalgia. He had been a favored primary candidate for several election cycles, but had never previously made it official. Carter’s response to his challenge was, “I’ll whip his ass.” Kennedy started ahead of the President in polls. His lead fell, however, as the Chappaquiddick controversy gained more media attention. Carter’s polls improved at the onset of the Iran Hostage Crisis, as voters initially felt the need to rally behind him. Kennedy campaigned hard in Iowa, but Carter won twice as many delegates. The President continued that momentum and was the clear winner of the primaries. As the hostage crisis dragged on, however, Democrats became more worried about Carter’s capabilities. The party convention was divided. Kennedy made one last pitch by calling for an “open” convention, wherein delegates would be released from their commitments to the primary results. His idea was voted down, and he subsequently withdrew. Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale were re-nominated on the first ballot.

Former California Governor Ronald Reagan had been eyeing the Republican nomination ever since his close defeat to incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976. After the election, he immediately began touring the country. Reagan called for a reduced role of government – lower taxes, decreased spending, balanced budgets, and reduced regulations. Somewhat paradoxically, he also wanted to increase defense spending in order to fend off Communists. Carter’s perceived vulnerability encouraged several other Republicans to enter the race. Long-time Illinois Congressman John Anderson chose to separate from the party and run under the National Unity ticket. Reagan’s greatest challenger was George HW Bush. A former oilman, Bush had one of the longest resumes of any candidate. He served as CIA Director, Ambassador to the UN, Special Envoy to China, and Chairman of the RNC. He was critical of Reagan’s monetary policy, which he called “voodoo economics.” Bush upset Reagan in the Iowa caucuses, but Reagan made a stronger effort in New Hampshire. During a local debate, a heated discussion over procedure led to the moderator asking the audio engineer to shut off Reagan’s microphone. Reagan aggressively responded, “I am paying for this microphone!” Reagan went on to crush Bush in the election and continued the momentum all the way to the convention. Unlike the Democrats, the Republican convention was optimistic and confident. The platform adopted Reagan’s far-right views. There was some uncertainty around Reagan’s running mate. For a moment, the campaign considered selecting former President Ford, but the idea was scrapped when reporters started discussing the idea of a “co-presidency.” Instead, Reagan chose a more recent challenger, George Bush. Although his conservative base was disappointed with the pick, he cheered them up with a well-received acceptance speech, which ended in a prayer.

The Campaign

In the last election, Carter ran as the “outsider” candidate. This time, Reagan was able to co-opt that label. He firmly rejected Carter’s notion that the country faced a “crisis of confidence.” Instead, he said that Americans were more enthusiastic than ever, but needed new leadership and fresh ideas. Reagan continued to criticize the federal government for having an oversized role in Americans’ lives. He relied heavily on his experience as California governor, though, when in office, he actually raised taxes. His experience in the entertainment industry made him an extremely effective campaigner. His public speaking skills earned him the moniker of “the Great Communicator.” One advisor called him, “the greatest television candidate in history.”

But Reagan’s tendency to make unscripted comments in order to please audiences led to a series of gaffes. Missteps included saying he favored restoring relations with Taiwan, which threatened America’s delicate relationship with China; suggesting teaching Creationism in public schools; falsely calling Tuscumbia, Alabama, where Carter opened his campaign, the birthplace of the KKK; saying air pollution had been “substantially controlled,” just before being forced to divert his plane from Los Angeles due to extreme smog; reaffirming his support for states’ rights, which was seen as coded language for segregation; and, last but not least, saying the Vietnam War was “a noble cause.” Reagan developed a pattern of apologizing and explaining for these remarks, leading to a reduction in press conferences and stricter supervision by his advisors. Famously, Reagan spun one of his gaffes to his advantage. After facing criticism for calling the ongoing economic downturn a “depression,” he responded, “I’m told I can’t use the word depression. Well, I’ll tell you the definition. A recession is when your neighbor loses his job and a depression is when you lose your job. Recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”

On the other side, Carter had his own share of controversy. He spent most of his time criticizing Reagan, rather than promoting his own record. This came across as petty, mean, and desperate. He called Reagan a racist and a warmonger, insisting that the election “will help to decide what kind of world we live in. It will help to decide whether we have war or peace.” Reagan defended his positions by arguing that Carter’s weakness was the greater threat to global peace. His supporters worried than a breakthrough in the Iran crisis would swing polls in Carter’s favor, but it never came.

John Anderson threatened to take votes from both parties. Capitalizing on the vitriol of the campaign, he said the two major candidates were acting “like two tarantulas in a bottle.” When asked if he was a spoil candidate, he replied, “What’s to spoil? Spoil the chances of two men at least half the country doesn’t want?” He was critical of Reagan’s economic plans and called Carter a failed president. Anderson successfully got on the ballot in all fifty states and rose enough in the polls to join a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Carter initially refused to participate in debates, but Reagan accepted the challenge. Reagan performed well and made up ground from his recent gaffes. As the campaign progressed, Anderson struggled to maintain support, as voters knew he was unlikely to win.

Carter finally agreed to debate Reagan in October. Both performed well on substance, but Reagan had the advantage on style. As expected, Reagan maintained his trademark calm and reasonable tone. When Carter became aggressive, he stopped him by saying, “There you go again!” Carter seemed less at ease, and, as one advisor observed, often looked like he “was about to slug” Reagan. He came off as foolish when, in a response about arms control, said, “I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weapons and the control of nuclear arms.” Voters felt this answer trivialized a serious topic. Reagan sealed his victory in his closing statement. He asked Americans, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” To most, the answer was obvious.

Election Day

Polls predicted a Reagan victory, but not a blowout of this proportion. Carter only won six states and the District of Columbia, including his home state of Georgia and Mondale’s home state of Minnesota. Reagan made gains with traditionally Democratic constituencies like Catholics and working-class families. Even Carter’s Southern base switched back to the Republican ticket. Anderson won 6.6% of the popular vote, but no states. His most notable effect was taking votes from Carter in the Northeast

The Winner

Ronald Reagan became America’s 40th president! He won 489 electors and 50.7% of the popular vote. Carter only won 49 electors with 41%. It was the biggest defeat for an incumbent president since Herbert Hoover. Carter was the first Democrat to fail re-election since Grover Cleveland in 1888. Likewise, this was only the second time two incumbents were defeated in a row, the other being Cleveland in 1888 and Benjamin Harrison in 1892. At 69 years old on Inauguration Day, Reagan surpassed William Henry Harrison (68), who died one month into his term, as the oldest president. Republicans also won back the Senate for the first time since 1954 and made large gains in the House.

What Did It Say About America?

Voters wanted (another) change. Their first attempt, Carter, had failed to restore America’s image. Reagan promised to be the FDR of the Right. Sixteen years earlier, Barry Goldwater ran a similar campaign and lost in a landslide. Now, the country was ready to turn to conservatism. That being said, Reagan’s huge win did not necessarily come with high enthusiasm. A public-opinion survey asked which candidate voters were “personally interested in or excited about” and found that only 11% said Reagan and 9% said Carter.

Was It The Right Decision?

No! I mean, I get it. Carter was a pretty big disappointment. While he faced unprecedented crises, his problems with Congress and the media were largely his own fault. He stuck to his virtues, but often ignored reality. It’s hard to understand why anyone thought the Malaise Speech was a good idea. Carter’s attacks on Reagan during the campaign were harsh, but he wasn’t wrong! A lot of the terrible positions of the modern Republican Party (on domestic and foreign policy) can be traced back to Reagan. Carter just wasn’t the right guy to beat him. Notably, Carter (95) is the oldest president that is still alive, as well as the long-lived president ever!

On Inauguration Day, 1981, Iran released the American hostages. Many believed fear of President Reagan was the cause. In reality, it was a result of Carter’s lengthy negotiations. The US promised to unfreeze Iranian funds, use a tribunal in the Netherlands to settle financial claims, and to not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs in the future. In fact, Reagan’s promise to not negotiate was further reason for Iran to finish the deal with Carter. The timing was not a coincidence, however. As president, Carter had become a symbol of the “evil” America to Iranians. Their leaders intentionally denied Carter the satisfaction of seeing the hostages return home. In any case, Americans were thrilled to finally have a win, and Reagan was setup for success on day one.