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Tight race in October 1980 as Carter and Reagan debate

By: Jason Berggren

Note: D. Jason Berggren is an associate professor of political science at Georgia Southwestern State University. This is the tenth article in the Carter 1980 look-back series.

Presidential debates typically do not alter the general direction and dynamics of presidential elections. They can make a race more competitive, but not change the trajectory. The candidate leading in national polls prior to the first debate normally remains in front after the last debate. According to one Gallup analysis, notable exceptions to this were 1960 and 2000 when John Kennedy and George W. Bush improved their respective standing in national surveys and then went on to win.

The last consequential events prior to Election Day 1980 were the presidential debates. There were only two that fall. The first was held on September 21 and the second on October 28. There was no vice-presidential debate that year.

The first debate was between Governor Ronald Reagan and Congressman John Anderson. Although he was invited, President Jimmy Carter skipped it. He opposed having a debate with the Republican nominee and an independent candidate who originally sought the Republican nomination. He wanted a debate between the two leading contenders first and then perhaps a three-way event.

The Americus Times-Recorder’s frontpage for September 10 reflected the President’s decision: “Carter Declines Debate Invitation, After Anderson is Asked”. Voters overwhelmingly thought that was a bad decision. A Gallup poll from mid-September revealed that 61 percent opposed the move, and only 24 percent supported it. In fact, most Democrats considered it unwise.

The League of Women Voters, the organization that sponsored the presidential debates, announced that it would not have an “empty chair” on the debate stage to represent the President’s no show. It also rejected an offer from a wax museum in South Dakota to provide a stand-in statue for President Carter.

The first debate was held in Baltimore, Maryland, and Bill Moyers of the Public Broadcasting System was the moderator. The questions came from a panel of six journalists. This was the first time an independent or minor party candidate participated in a presidential debate. Ross Perot in 1992 would be the second.

For one hour, Reagan and Anderson discussed several issues that evening. They discussed measures to fight inflation, energy consumption and conservation, national defense readiness and the draft, urban development and infrastructure, economic forecasting and the impact on inflation, and the role of religion in politics.

Both attacked President Carter for being absent. Anderson hit Carter on the economy at the outset.  He said, “Governor Reagan is not responsible for what has happened over the last four years, nor am I. The man who should be here tonight to respond to those charges chose not to attend.” Reagan followed when the issue turned to national defense. “It’s a shame now that there are only two of us here debating, because the two that are here are in more agreement than disagreement on this particular issue, and the only one who would be disagreeing with us is the President, if he were present.”

The first debate did not produce a clear winner. Reagan did no harm to his candidacy. There were no significant gaffes or mistakes. Anderson was solid and steady, but the debate did not change the direction of the race. He entered the debate a distant third and he left in the same position.

The September 23 headline for the Americus Times-Recorder was, “Candidates Waltz to No Decision, Neither Able to Score”.

President Carter recorded his overall reaction in his diary: “We watched the Reagan-Anderson debate, which was really depressing, as they merely spouted statistics, et cetera. Anderson helped himself with liberals, and Reagan seemed ineffectual. But who knows? Pat [Caddell] will give me audience reaction tomorrow.”

The League of Women Voters offered another debate proposal for October. It involved a Carter-Reagan debate for the week of October 12 and a three-candidate debate the week of October 26. Carter accepted it, but Reagan rejected it. He insisted on the inclusion of Anderson for all debates held.

Not surprisingly, Anderson agreed with Reagan. He wanted three-person debates and objected to the League’s willingness “to appease the White House”.

The League’s offer to sponsor a vice-presidential debate that included Vice President Walter Mondale, Republican candidate George Bush, and independent candidate Patrick Lucey stalled, too.

Some polls showed a close race in mid-to-late October. According to Gallup, in its October 10-12 survey, Reagan held a slight lead over Carter, 45 – 42 percent. Anderson was down to 8 percent. The numbers were essentially flipped in its October 24-26 poll, with Carter leading 45 – 42 and Anderson was up to 9 percent. Among registered voters, Carter was up eight points, 47 – 39 percent, in the last pre-debate Gallup poll.

A New York Times / CBS News Poll for October 16-20 had Carter and Reagan in virtual tie; Carter was at 39 percent and Reagan 38 percent. Anderson came in at 9 percent. In the previous month, for September 23-25, the same poll had Reagan with a five-point advantage, 40 – 35 percent, and Anderson at 9 percent.

Other polls showed Reagan up. For example, a poll by the Associated Press / NBC News for October 22-24 had Reagan up six, 42 – 36 percent, with Anderson at 10 percent. This poll was consistent with an earlier one from October 8-10 that had Reagan leading 43 – 35 percent. Anderson polled at 10 percent. In September, Reagan’s lead in this poll was 9 points, 42 -33 percent, and Anderson came in with 13 percent.

An ABC News / Harris Poll for October 3-6 provided Reagan a four-point lead, 43 – 39 over President Carter. Anderson followed with 14 percent.

What was not exactly clear was where the Anderson support would go as Election Day neared. It was expected that his numbers would shrink. But would that benefit Carter or Reagan? There was also about 10 percent of voters who were considered undecided. Where would they go? This raised the stakes for the one debate between the major candidates.

Carter’s job approval remained quite low. The last Gallup survey prior to the election had him at 37 percent (Sept. 12-15). Among his fellow Democrats, it was only 61 percent. It was 12 percent among Republicans.

Carter was viewed as a slightly more likeable candidate than Reagan. The Gallup poll for October 10-13 showed that 68 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of President Carter and 64 percent had a favorable view of Governor Reagan. 

With declining poll numbers and no longer in double-digits, Anderson was not included in the second debate. He was no longer polling at or above the 15 percent threshold. That left only Carter and Reagan.

A tentative agreement between the two leading campaigns was reached on October 20 that there would be a one-on-one debate. The exact date remained unknown until October 21.

The Americus Times-Recorder kept up with the back and forth: “Carter Pushes Anew For A Reagan Debate” (Oct. 16), “Debate Appears Certain” (Oct. 18), “Carter-Reagan Debate Oked” (Oct. 21), and “TV Debate Slated for Next Tuesday” (Oct. 22).

With a date set, the Best Western motel in Americus encouraged area residents to come and watch the debate. According to an advertisement in the Americus Times-Recorder (Oct. 23), “We will have special TV sets for your viewing in the Lounge, the Main Dining Room, and in the Banquet Room”. Food and beverages items were half price.

The one and only presidential debate between President Carter and Governor Reagan took place on October 28 in Cleveland, Ohio. It had a 9:30 p.m. EST start time. The moderator was Howard K. Smith of ABC News. He was joined by a panel of four journalists.

Anderson who was not invited to participate had the opportunity to answer the same questions on the months-old Cable News Network. He responded to questions from a venue in Washington, D.C.

According to Nielsen Media Research, 80.6 million tuned into the Carter-Reagan debate. It remained the largest television audience for a presidential debate until 2016.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the candidates were asked eight questions with follow-ups, covering a range of topics: the use of American military power, inflation, the quality of life in urban cities, the American hostages in Iran and international terrorism, nuclear arms control with the Soviet Union, Middle East oil dependency, and Social Security. Barbara Walters of ABC News asked the final question on why voters should not vote for the other candidate.

The 1980 Carter-Reagan debate is most remembered for its conclusion. Each candidate had three minutes for closing remarks. President Carter was first. He confessed that he learned as he went along and did his best to lead the country during challenging times. “I’ve been President now for almost four years. I’ve had to make thousands of decisions, and each one of those decisions has been a learning process. I’ve seen the strength of my nation, and I’ve seen the crises it approached in a tentative way. And I’ve had to deal with those crises as best I could.”

Carter said the presidency was “a lonely job”. It is lonely because as the President, “I alone have had to determine the interests of my country and the degree of involvement of my country” in the troubled areas of the world.

He then highlighted the ideological differences between them.

“I think it’s been a very constructive debate and I hope it’s helped to acquaint the American people with the sharp differences between myself and Governor Reagan…As I’ve studied the record between myself and Governor Reagan, I’ve been impressed with the stark differences that exist between us. I think the result of this debate indicates that that fact is true. I consider myself in the mainstream of my party. I consider myself in the mainstream even of the bipartisan list of presidents who served before me.”

The implication, of course, was that Reagan was not a mainstream candidate, but rather he represented an extreme approach to leadership and policy. However, Carter did not identify in closing what that was.

However, for weeks, Carter portrayed Reagan as an extremist, a warmonger. He described the election as a choice between “whether we have peace or war”. Reagan, all too frequently, looks to a military solution to international problems. Carter stated, “The record’s there.” With the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War on September 22, the matter assumed a higher degree of seriousness.

The Americus Times-Recorder ran a few frontpage stories that highlighted the President’s claim: “Carter: Choices ‘Peace or War’” (Sept. 23), “Carter Holds Firm to Stand, That Reagan Has Itchy Trigger Finger” (Sept. 24), “‘President of Peace’, Rosalynn of Jimmy” (Sept. 30), “Carter Toughening Words Against Reagan” (Oct. 7).

Reagan angrily dismissed such talk. At one point, he said, “I think that to accuse that anyone would deliberately want war is beneath decency.” His staff said the President’s attacks were just plain “mean”.

In Cleveland, Carter asked his fellow Americans to join him in a “partnership” – a partnership “to stay strong, to stay at peace, to raise high the banner of human rights, to set an example for the rest of the world, to let our deep beliefs and commitments be felt by others in other nations…”

Then Reagan gave his closing statement. It was one of those moments that come to define a presidential debate and a presidential election. The former governor of California delivered one of the most memorable lines in presidential debate history. He simply asked the American people a few basic pocketbook questions, chiefly among them was, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

With the hostage crisis in Iran approaching the one-year anniversary, Reagan asked about the global standing of the country.

“Next Tuesday is Election Day. 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? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to whom you will vote for. If you don’t agree, if you don’t think that this course that we’ve been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.”

Reagan asked his fellow Americans to join his “crusade” to get “government off the backs of the great people of this country”.

Carter wrote in his diary that he was pleased with his debate performance, that he addressed the main issues and made his pitch to his party base. Tellingly, he did not declare victory. He sensed that he was unable to steer the race decidedly in his favor.

Meanwhile, George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, was impressed with Carter’s debate performance. That night he offered his fellow southerner his endorsement for another four years. “As an Alabama Democrat, I do plan to vote for the President and support him in next Tuesday’s elections.”

That last week of October, other southern Democratic governors and senators reiterated their support for Carter’s re-election. They argued that only a president from the South could best understand their region’s needs. The governors who reiterated their support for Carter were George Busbee of Georgia, Bob Graham of Florida, Richard Riley of South Carolina, and William Winter of Mississippi. They were joined by U.S. Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia, Lawton Chiles of Florida, and John Stennis of Mississippi.

The President dismissed Reagan’s debate effort as crafted and well-rehearsed. In his 2010 comment to his October 27 diary entry, he identified the Republican nominee as a “professional actor”.

“In the debate itself it was hard to judge the general demeanor that was projected to the viewers. Reagan was ‘Aw, shucks’…this and that…‘I’m a grandfather, and I would never get this nation in a war’…and ‘I love peace…’ He has his memorized tapes. He pushes a button, and they come out. He apparently made a better impression on the TV audience than I did, but I made all our points to the constituency groups – which we believe will become preeminent in the public’s mind as they approach the point a week from now of actually going to the polls. Both sides felt good after the debate. We’ll see whose basic strategy is best when the returns come in next Tuesday.”

The headline the next day in the Americus Times-Recorder was, “Both Candidates Claim Edge in Dramatic Debate”.

Carter reported in his diary for October 30 that his pollster Pat Caddell found that the post-debate figures were not looking good. Things were moving in the wrong direction. “Reagan apparently improved more than I did. Nobody knows.”

The President and the country would soon know – and know in a decisive, unambiguous way come November 4, 1980.