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The Election of Ronald Reagan in 1980: A Reemergence of Economic & Political Conservatism

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  • 0:06 Context of the Election
  • 1:34 Reagan Campaign
  • 3:16 Presidential Election of 1980
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The presidential election of 1980 witnessed the transition from liberal to conservative politics in America. Learn about Ronald Reagan's campaign to become President of the United States in 1980 in this video lesson.

Context of the Election

The presidential election of 1980 represented the American desire to find an alternative to the failing liberal policies of President Jimmy Carter. Many voters pointed to the stagnant economy of the 1970s as the reason for the needed change in the White House. Both unemployment and inflation remained high, real income had risen only 1.5% since 1965 (compared to the 3% before 1965) and the administration had failed to mitigate foreign issues, such as the Iran hostage situation. The general contempt for the Carter Administration was felt when Carter's own party, the Democratic Party, attempted to replace him with Senator Edward Kennedy as the candidate for the 1980 election. While Carter survived the 1980 presidential primary, he faced a formidable Republican candidate.

While the Democratic Party was battling over their candidate for the presidential election of 1980, the Republican Party rallied behind former California Governor Ronald Reagan. It was not an easy selection for the Republican Party as there were a number of notable candidates, such as future President George H.W. Bush, Senator Bob Dole and Illinois Representative John Anderson. Reagan, however, had an impressive track record in elections. In the presidential election of 1968, Reagan made impressive strides, but fell short to Richard Nixon who went on to become president. In 1976, Reagan narrowly lost the Republican primary to incumbent President Gerald Ford. In 1980, Reagan finally broke through and claimed the Republican nomination on the first ballot. He immediately chose George H.W. Bush as his running mate.

Reagan Campaign

Ronald Reagan represented the rise of the New Right, or the return to right-wing conservative politics, in America. Nixon was supposed to be the conservative torchbearer in 1968 after Americans grew tired of the liberal politics of President Lyndon Johnson. Yet, he struggled significantly due to the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. His successor, Gerald Ford, also failed to achieve success. Reagan seemed to be the most promising choice to lead the New Right in 1980. His campaign promises reflected the conservative sentiment that Americans were seeking following two decades of despair.

Reagan's campaign focused on the idea of a new America. He believed in a stronger national defense, including a major military buildup to continue to combat international communist aggression during the Cold War. Reagan rejected an expansive federal government in favor of laissez faire politics, which meant limited government intervention. Economically, Reagan campaigned on the notion of supply-side economics, and promised a balanced budget and lower tax rates on businesses and Americans. Reagan wanted to return the nation to the economic prosperity of the 1950s. He also rejected the renewal of liberal welfare programs. Reagan viewed individual financial aid, food stamps and socialized medicine as a drain on the American economy. He vowed to overhaul the welfare system.

Reagan promoted a return to traditional family values. He also supported religion, especially prayer in public schools. Reagan promised seminal changes for women's rights in the United States. In addition to guaranteeing the addition of women to his cabinet, as well as the Supreme Court, Reagan championed anti-discrimination legislation for women, as well as full equality throughout the nation. Similarly, Reagan touted a color-blind social policy that would assist all Americans regardless of color.

Presidential Election of 1980

Reagan had gained the confidence of a wide array of Americans during his campaigning in 1980. Women, business owners, laborers, religious leaders and members of the conservative right all supported Reagan. Conversely, Carter stood little chance against the ruthless campaigning of his opponent. Reagan regularly asked, 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago?' He repeatedly referred to what was known as the 'misery index,' which was the mixture of the unemployment rate and inflation. Reagan also criticized Carter's foreign policy initiatives, often regarding them as embarrassing and overly cautious.

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