The year 1980 marked a reversal of party practices and traditions, in that traditionally Democrats were the party of programs/initiatives while the Republicans were the budget-balancers (w/ the exception of Nixon). Now Carter was the budget-balancer and Reagan was the one with the program. Carter was a New Democrat that was unable to articulate a framework that voters could appreciate and and understand during harsh economic times, while in comparison the Republicans had an easy time selling lower taxes and economic growth.
Reagan was optimistic and kept talking about a great future for America while Carter preached sacrifice and limits, coming off as a “Public Scold” from the Bible Belt. Nevermind that the Republican program of lower taxes (“Supply Side Economics”, a.k.a. “Reaganomics”) led to insanely high deficits in the 1980s; in the 1980 campaign, Americans preferred Reagan’s optimism and remedies far more than Carter’s realism.
The only real strategy employed against Reagan by the Carter campaign was to try and play the “fear card”, which meant the overall strategy of the Democrats was negative. Painting Reagan as a wild-eyed out-of-control conservative like Goldwater didn’t work; that same strategy was used by the Democrats in 2016 against President Trump, and again it failed miserably. Reagan enlisted an expert in Presidential campaigning, James Baker III, who had learned much from Ford’s loss to Carter in 1976 when he was Ford’s campaign manager. Baker kept the Reagan campaign focused on the economy and the so-called “Misery Index”.
The 28 October 1980 Presidential debate between Carter and Reagan proved decisive, in part because Carter and his campaign staff were outsmarted by Baker in terms of the timing of the debate. As Baker well knew a week before the election, a Reagan landslide was not a foregone conclusion. The race was close until the debate put Reagan ahead for good, and still the polls swung back to Carter in that short period of time . . . until Carter’s reaction to a last-minute offer from Iran sealed his fate.
Carter was pushed into a dilemma once Anderson’s poll numbers fell, and Reagan accepted Carter’s terms, which meant that the debate would occur very close to the election, something that worried Caddell a great deal. As it turned out, Carter would be no match for Reagan in a televised Presidential debate. Reagan almost playfully swatted away Carter’s verbal jabs (“There you go again . . .”), and Reagan closed by asking Americans if they were better off now than they were four years ago. Reagan successfully dispelled the “fear factor” that the Carter campaign had trumpeted; Reagan’s optimistic and avuncular manner on television turned the campaign on a dime. A record 100 million Americans watched the debate. Going into the debate, Reagan held a narrow lead in the polls by 2 or 3 points, but after the debate, his lead rose to several points; usually debates don’t move the polls, but this debate certainly did. As a result, Carter’s strategy shifted to the “risk factor” if Reagan became President.
William Casey (a future Director of the CIA), literally dropped the debate book on Baker’s desk and told Baker that he didn’t want to know where it came from. The story leaked in 1983, and resulted in a ten month Congressional investigation, where Casey denied ever giving the book to Baker, while Baker testified that he had seen the debate book. The investigation never determined who actually stole the debate book from the Carter campaign. Almost thirty years came the truth, and what made the theft possible were rogue elements within the Kennedy campaign that truly hated Carter. While never proven beyond a doubt, it seems that there were Kennedy people in the Carter administration that made the theft possible.
As far as the media (and the public) was concerned, Carter had cried wolf before on the potential release of the hostages, and not it appeared he might be doing so to garner votes, which wasn’t true at all. In effect, Khomeini was interfering with the election, and Carter totally enabled Khomeini without wanting to do so. Iran wanted a yes-or-no answer to their offer by Monday, the day before the election, and to Carter’s credit he refused to play ball, knowing it was nothing more than a political trap. Carter told the media that the offer was a step forward but it wasn’t close to an acceptable agreement, which was a statement that he could have made from the campaign trail.
Carter had one last chance on that Sunday when he returned to Chicago to campaign. Carter was advised to give a very angry public reply to Iran, but Carter was worried that Iran’s response would be taken out on the hostages. Carter appeared on television, interrupting a Redskins game, to make a mild statement on the Iranian offer that featured no anger at all. Carter’s decisions to go back to DC and make a tepid television appearance reminded voters of the humiliation of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and those voters figuratively threw up their hands and gave up on Carter.
Carter didn’t even wait for the polls to close in the western states before he called Reagan to concede, and then he informed the media of his concession. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill fumed from his home in Cambridge (MA), telling a pro-Carter Democrat in the House that the “Carter Bunch” came in like a bunch of jerks and went out the same way. It was a landslide for Reagan in virtually every electoral measure, with Reagan receiving 489 Electoral Votes (and 44 states) to Carter’s 49 (6 states + DC). However, Reagan only had .507 of the popular vote, but he had a margin of 8.5+ million votes over Carter.
O’Neill, over his Election Night hissy fit, told Carter that history would treat him well. Carter exercised the full powers of the Presidency until the moment he could do so no longer. When the hostages were allowed to leave Iranian air space on Inauguration Day 1981, Reagan graciously offered Carter the use of Air Force One to go to West Germany to greet the hostages. Among those with Carter was Mondale, and at Rhein-Main Air Force Base in West Germany, some of the hostages tearfully embraced Carter while others, angry at their long captivity, refused to interact with the former President.