1980 Reagan VS. Carter VS. Anderson

"Nancy Reagan"

In campaign ads, spouses usually play a benign role. They are there to humanize the candidate and to add some warmth. The 1980 ad “Nancy Reagan” is a striking exception. As the ad begins, she fervently refutes the charges that President Carter has made against “my husband,” stating that he is not a warmonger. She then goes on the attack, asking that Carter “explain to me” why inflation is so high, and why he has a “vacillating, weak” foreign policy. Although this is an attack ad, it is presented as an act of spousal defense. Reagan had a reputation as a staunch conservative, and the campaign felt the need to project a soft, safe image of the candidate so that voters would feel comfortable with him. The attacks on Carter are left to surrogates, including Nancy Reagan, Gerald Ford, William Safire, and—in another memorable ad using footage from the bitter Democratic primary battle—Ted Kennedy.


Museum of the Moving Image
The Living Room Candidate
"Nancy Reagan," Reagan, 1980

NANCY REAGAN: I deeply, deeply resent and am offended by the attacks that President Carter's made on my husband. The personal attacks that he's made on my husband. His attempt to paint my husband as a man he is not. He is not a warmonger, he is not a man who is going to throw the elderly out on the street and cut out their social security. That's a terrible thing to, to do and to say, about anybody. That's campaigning on fear.

There are many issues that are at stake in this campaign. I would like Mr. Carter to explain to me why the inflation is as high as it is, why unemployment is as high as it is. I would like to have him explain the vacillating, weak foreign policy so that our friends overseas don't know what we're going to do, whether we're going to stand up for them, or whether we're not going to stand up for them. And the issue of this campaign is his three and a half year record.

MALE NARRATOR: The time is now for strong leadership.


"Nancy Reagan," Reagan Bush Committee, 1980

Maker: Campaign '80

Video courtesy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan/Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

From Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2012.
www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1980/nancy-reagan (accessed September 30, 2020).


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1980 Reagan Carter Anderson Results

On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran. Protesting the entry of the deposed Shah into the United States, they held 53 Americans hostage. For the next twelve months, the hostage situation was an ongoing American nightmare magnified by constant media attention. Confidence in President Carter eroded as a result of the Iran crisis, an oil shortage and resultant increase in gas prices, and 18 percent inflation. Carter’s chances were further damaged by a tough primary battle against Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy.

While Carter had been the fresh face of 1976, this year the role of Washington outsider was played by the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan. A former Hollywood actor who became governor of California in 1966, Reagan made a brief run for the presidency in 1968, and nearly beat Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976. Reagan’s landslide victory was due not only to Carter’s problems, but also to a demographic shift toward an aging population that was growing more conservative. Carter became the first Democratic incumbent to lose the presidency since Grover Cleveland in 1888. In a further indignity, the Iranians waited until the moment of Reagan’s inauguration to release the hostages.

Ronald Reagan for president
George Bush for vice president

"The Time Is Now for Strong Leadership"

Ronald Reagan’s television spots were not particularly artful. The centerpiece of the campaign was a conventional biographical ad tracing Reagan’s career and crediting him with reducing California’s deficit while lowering taxes. The ad’s main purpose was to show that Reagan—best known to the public as a movie actor—was also an effective governor.

The rest of Reagan’s ads were simple but effective variations on the central question he put to voters: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" A variety of attack ads reiterated the main problems of the Carter administration: high inflation and the hostage crisis. One spot,credited to "Democrats for Reagan," included a clip of Ted Kennedy shouting, "No more Jimmy Carter!" during the primary campaign. An unusual negative spot featured Nancy Reagan lambasting Carter for his "vacillating" foreign policy. Though it is common for advertising to feature a candidate’s family members, spouses rarely appear in attack ads.

Reagan’s campaign took advantage of a loophole in federal financing laws designed to limit overall campaign spending. These laws placed a ceiling on the amount of money that could be contributed directly to a campaign, but they also permitted the creation of political action committees, independent groups whose expenditures in support of candidates were not counted against the spending limit. PACs spent a total of $12 million on Reagan’s behalf, compared to less than $50,000 on Carter’s.

Jimmy Carter for president
Walter Mondale for vice president

"Re-Elect President Carter on November 4"

Carter’s television commercials represented a futile attempt to cast his presidency in the best possible light, and to raise concerns about his opponent. Stressing his main achievement, the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, they portrayed him as a peacemaker and emphasized his military background. As in 1976, the ads focused less on issues and accomplishments than on Carter’s personal qualities, calling him "a solid man in a sensitive job." By describing the presidency as arduous and difficult, the ads asked the public to overlook some of Carter’s setbacks, and implied that Reagan, who would be the first president to begin his term past the age of seventy, might not be up to the job.

In negative ads reminiscent of Johnson’s attacks on Goldwater in 1964, Carter attempted to raise fears that Reagan would be a warmonger. But Johnson’s ads were effective because they were given credence by Goldwater’s defiant style and by statements he made during the campaign. Reagan’s cool and confident manner, exemplified by his nonchalant "there you go again" response to Carter during their televised debate, effectively eased voters' fears.

John Anderson for president
Patrick Lucey for vice president

Illinois congressman John Anderson ran third in the Republican primaries, but gained attention for his intelligence and independent views, which were fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Anderson’s commercials featured a toll-free number in order to encourage small individual contributions, a technique that has since been used by such candidates as Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Jerry Brown, and Bill Clinton.

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