“Are You Better Off than You Were Four Years Ago?”

by Hannah Richardson

The election of 1980 was a landslide win for the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan. He ran against the Democratic incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, an Independent Illinois Congressman, John B. Anderson, and Libertarian candidate, Ed Clark. Ronald Reagan was the former Governor of California. He also had a successful career as an actor in Hollywood. President Carter was elected in 1977 as the 39th President of the United States. Prior to becoming President, Carter served as the Governor of Georgia and was a member of the Georgia Senate. John B. Anderson had enough popularity that he was considered a solid candidate but ended up receiving no electoral votes and 6.6% of the popular vote. There were several factors that influenced the outcome of the 1980 election but one critical moment was the Presidential debate of 1980 between Governor Reagan and President Carter. This debate coupled with the optimism of Reagan’s campaign and the attacks from Carter’s campaign are major factors that influenced the outcome of the election.

The debates for this election cycle had a rocky start. For the first debate, the League of Women Voters announced that Rep. Anderson would join Governor Reagan and President Carter on stage. Carter refused to participate with Rep. Anderson included and Reagan refused to debate without him. After several negotiations, the League of Women Voters put together a debate that was held on September 21, 1980 in the Baltimore Convention Center. The debate covered several issues and polls after the debate indicated that Governor Reagan had won the debate. In this debate Reagan used the phrase, “there you go again,” in response to an attack Carter was making against him. This had a surprisingly big impact on the debate. Governor Reagan used this phrase to disarm Carter and threw him off his offense. The line became very popular and was used in newspaper headlines and news broadcasts.  Another major sound bite from the debate was when Governor Reagan asked, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” In the debate, he said:

Next Tuesday all of you will go to the polls, will stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, 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? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?

This idea was a major theme of Reagan’s campaign and was even used as a campaign slogan. Governor Reagan argued that the Carter Administration had not been successful and that he would bring change. The debate was just a week before the election and Governor Reagan’s statement was a final blow against President Carter. Both candidates heavily focused on the image of the last four years. President Carter spent a great deal of time trying to convince the American people that his last four years had been successful whereas Governor Reagan tried to show the downfalls of the current administration. This is largely shown through each candidate’s television advertisements.

President Carter worked hard to try to show that his time in office had been successful and that he deserved to stay. He put out advertisements showing things he had accomplished but also spent a lot of time attacking Governor Reagan. One example of his attempt to diminish Governor Reagan was his advertisement, “Streetgov,” where the campaign interviewed citizens of California who all said they were not happy with Reagan as a leader. President Carter received a lot of backlash for running a campaign that was so focused on attacking his opponent. Many people believed this was a tactic of President Carter’s. By drawing attention to his attacks on Governor Reagan he was taking attention away from the diminishing economy. A cartoonist named Jeff MacNelly depicted this in a cartoon that was published in October of 1980 in the Chicago Tribune. He depicts Carter driving a train that has clearly crashed and is labeled “Economy.” He is the driver and he is saying “Not to change the subject or anything but did you know Reagan is a hate-mongering racist?” President Carter’s attacks became a major focus in the election. To refute the attacks, the Reagan Campaign did something new. They had Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s wife, narrate an advertisement refuting the attacks that President Carter made against Governor Reagan. It was an attack ad made to look like a spouse defending her husband. The advertisement stuck to the theme that was to show the people that President Carter had not been a good president and that Governor Reagan would bring change and optimism. This strategic move worked in Governor Reagan’s favor. It did both, validate the American people who thought Carter’s campaign was being overly attacking and promote the idea that change was needed.

The election was held on November 4, 1980, where Ronald Reagan was elected president receiving 489 electoral votes and 50.7% of the popular vote. For the first time since 1952, Republicans had gained control of the Senate. There were several additional issues that impacted the election, including the Iranian hostage crisis. The Iran hostage crisis loomed over President Carter’s chances of reelection. In November 1979, 50 Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. For the year leading up to the election, President Carter was seen as unable to solve the problem and get the hostages safely released. This was a major issues that Governor Reagan worked with to help discredit his opponent

. The hostages were released on January 21, 1981, after President Reagan delivered his inaugural address. Reagan was able to make Carter appear weak between the presidential debate and his rebuttal against Carter’s attacks through his own advertisements. Though President Reagan won in a landslide it is important to note that there was a lot of scandal surrounding his candidacy. A major scandal that some argue could have had a big impact on the election was the fact that some of Governor Reagan’s aides had the notes for the 1980 debate from Carter’s campaign. Because the debate had such an impact on the election it can be argued that it could have won Reagan the election and had he not have had access to some of Carter’s notes he may not have done as well. Reagan’s win was assisted by the events surrounding the Iran Hostage Crisis and the worsening economy. President Reagan was credited with the release of the hostages and went on to serve a second term.

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