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Iran Hostage Crisis in the Election of 1980



By: Abigail Dorward, Katie Bearup, Anna Still, Charles Cory, and Jack Ware

On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students seized control of the American Embassy in Iran, taking sixty six hostages. These students were fueled by anti-American sentiment that was widespread in Iran, and their actions were sparked by America’s decision to grant the deposed Iranian Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, asylum in America to receive cancer treatment. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran during the hostage crisis, was known for his hatred of the West, and especially of America. He had lead the efforts to depose Shah Pahlavi because the Shah routinely cooperated with American interests.

This was the greatest ordeal that Jimmy Carter faced during his presidency, and it would be 444 days until the last of the hostages were released. The hostage crisis raised Khomeini’s global profile, granting an air of legitimacy to his anti-Western politics. Khomeini refused to release the American hostages until Carter released the Shah back to Iran to face his death. This ongoing crisis was poison for Carter’s reelection campaign. Reagan’s campaign played off Carter and Khomeini’s seemingly interminable stalemate to indicate that Carter was weak, incompetent, and unfit to be President.

As campaigning for the 1980 election began, Carter seemed to have the advantage. He was the incumbent president, the economy was doing well, and the New Right movement that backed Reagan still seemed a little extreme to most Americans. But the Iran hostage crisis changed that. Iranian oil supplies were cut off, causing a fuel crisis that harmed the American economy. The fear mongering of the New Right campaign now seemed presentient, and Carter’s inability to resolve the crisis gave Americans cause to doubt his capability for foreign policy, especially in the face of anti-Western hostility. The hostage crisis also drew Carter’s attention away from campaigning for the year leading up to the general election as he attempted to negotiate the hostages’ freedom. As such, the Iran hostage crisis can be viewed as a determining factor in Reagan’s eventual victory over Carter in 1980.

Carter v. Reagan: The Economy and the Election of 1980


The Presidential Election of 1980 marked an important milestone in economic policy. Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee, fiercely campaigned against democratic President Jimmy Carter. The economy became the hot-topic of the election because the nation recently suffered an economic recession from 1973-1975. In addition, “stagflation” resulted in high inflation coupled with rising unemployment, further hindering the U.S. economy.

The two candidates focused on economic reforms in order to solve the nation's crises. Reagan ran on the slogan of “Make America Great Again,” which touched on Carter’s failure to improve the nation during his term in office. His campaign also centered on restoring America’s economic health through supply-side economics, which proposed investing in capital. These policies included a reduction in taxes especially in the upper tax brackets and less government intervention in order to encourage American investment, which would ideally spur the economy on all levels.  In order to achieve this, Reagan promised to reduce taxes by 30% over his presidency. Reagan’s policy opposed the post-World War II Keynesian consensus of government intervention to create a thriving economy, and increase consumer demand. In addition, Reagan’s campaign promised a balanced budget. Reagan told of an economic revival that would ultimately affect all sectors of the population. 

In contrast, Carter’s economic policy portrayed a more gloomy perspective on the nation’s economic situation. One of Carter’s slogans was “Carter and Mondale: A Tested and Trustworthy Team,” in hopes that the American people would trust this ticket's ability to weather the storm that was the past 4 years. His economic policies focused on eliminating the recession, while combatting high inflation. Carter also sought to have full employment in the United States by emphasizing investment, innovation, and more efficient government programs. Carter’s campaign attacked Reagan's policies and contended Reagan would eliminate important welfare programs that benefited the needy. 

Carter’s campaign proved ineffective, and Reagan was able to persuade the national audience of his leadership skills. Reaganomics also became the solution for the failing liberal consenus that dominated Washington politics during the post-war era. Reagan’s optimistic outlook on America’s future appealed to average Americans who suffered due to the seemingly failing economy. Americans ultimately sought a candidate who would fix the economy rather than a candidate who just identified the problem.

Carter's Collapse and the Election of 1980

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Before the United States Presidential Election of 1980, only three incumbent presidents, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, and Gerald R. Ford, had lost re-election bids in the twentieth century. Jimmy Carter became the fourth incumbent U.S. president to lose a re-election bid in the twentieth century. Carter had risen from seemingly nowhere in 1976 to capture the Democratic nomination and won a narrow victory against the incumbent Gerald R. Ford in the general election. Carter rode a wave of anti-establishment sentiments into the White House, and offered an alternative to the imperial presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. Carter promised to never lie to the American people and often admitted the limits of his power, as seen in the Crisis of Confidence speech in 1979.

This humbler presidency resonated with American voters in 1976, but the events of Carter’s presidency made his limited, though likely realistic, view of the presidency seem too small for many American voters. Stagflation became rampant in the late-1970s and a second energy crisis created lines never seen at American gas stations. The Iranian Revolution induced the Energy Crisis of 1979 and the Iranian hostage crisis, which dogged Carter’s re-election campaign and illustrated his inability to effectively conduct foreign policy. Carter then recieved two blows to both of his political flanks. First, Senator Ted Kennedy ran against Carter in the Democratic primaries as a "Great Society Alternative." Kennedy's bid failed, but it likely caused a sizable portion of the liberal wing of the democratic base to stay home in 1980. Carter also lost the votes of many conservative evangelicals when he said in a Playboy interview that he had committed Adultery in his heart many times. 

It is debatable whether or not any president could have solved the multitude of economic and diplomatic problems that befell the Carter administration before the 1980 election. What was not debatable, however, was the stark difference between the leadership styles of Carter and the man who defeated him, Ronald Reagan. Carter was a policy wonk who micromanaged problems. Some voters perceived his tendency to micromanage as a failure to see the overall economic or diplomatic mission of his administration. Ronald Reagan offered a stark contrast to this granular leadership style that obsessed over specific policy points; he focused on positive and broad messages that blamed government, not just governmental leaders, as the main force holding America back in the 1970s. The election in some ways became a leadership referendum between an analytical detail master and a wonderful communicator with sweeping, if vague, visions of a stronger America. So, while the election of 1980 was certainly about the rise of conservatism, it was also an election about what type of leader America wanted.    

The Cold War's Influence on the Election of 1980

      The election of 1980 marked a significant realignment in American Politics. The Cold War’s impact on this election was vast. In 1979, after the first 3 years of Jimmy Carter’s Presidency, over 60% of the population favored an increase in military strength and spending. Jimmy Carter’s policy of strength through diplomacy wasn’t cutting it, and led to a public fear that Carter’s détente policy was allowing the Soviets to catch up to the U.S. in arms, space, and global influence. In his “Commander 60” re-election commercial we see President Carter try to paint himself as a strong military man to push back against the criticism of his “weak” foreign policy. For President Carter, who preferred to stay frank with the public, selling happiness and patriotism was not a strong suit.

         Because of the complexity of the Cold War, the topic of foreign policy concerning U.S.- Soviet relations was often avoided by presidential nominee candidates, Carter included. Carter met with the Soviet General Secretary of the Central Committee in June of 1979 to propose SALT II, in the hopes of Soviet cooperation. When the treaty proved a failure, however, the nation’s approval wavered. News articles criticized both parties and flashbacks to the Vietnam War increased fear among voters. 

         Tensions increased in December of 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This move, Carter argued, would not only threaten Iran and Pakistan as well as violate international law, but give the USSR access to vast oil supplies. Carter addressed the American Public, arguing that this geopolitical development was unacceptable. He offered an ultimatum; if Soviet troops did not pull out from Afghanistan within one month, the United States would boycott the Summer Moscow Olympics. As this did not come to fruition, Carter withdrew American athletes. While this development had some support internationally, there was wavering national confidence in Carter’s strategy.

         A major theme from the campaign of Reagan was patriotism, as conflict and rivalry with the Soviet Union fostered a strong sense of national pride in the American people. His stress on a strong American presence abroad and desire to combat the Soviet Union's expansion of communism were popular among the American people who were feeling a strong sense of this patriotism. Reagan's campaign was full of references to patriotism including campaign posters filled with American flags and red, white, and blue colors and speeches at national landmarks.

       Beginning with his speech to the RNC in 1980, it became clear that Ronald Reagan would take a markedly different tact than the Carter administration in dealing with the Soviet Union. He promised the delegates gathered in Detroit that with his election, the Unites States would again be a symbol of strength in the world. Reagan presented his strategy of “peace through strength,” promising that the United States would no longer submit to foreign enemies and would again defends its values at home and abroad. He rallied his supporters around this new patriotism and resolve to once again take pride in the American brand of freedom. 

Group 4: Austin, Mariam, SarahCate, Sophia, Addison

Traditional Values in the 1980 Election


Prior to the 1980 presidential election, middle class American families focused on traditional and religious values.  The 1968 election of Richard Nixon brought into the spotlight a new anti-liberal message supported by Americans in response to these social changes due to issues such as the Vietnam War and a declining economy. Many families began to come together to form small grassroots community based organizations desiring change for local based issue. This was mostly a fear based movement that America was beginning to change on a national level due to the governments influence in people’s lives. These grassroots organizations grew with time by supporting traditional Christian and family values to fight against the perceived moral decline of America.

Throughout the 1970s, concerns grew over issues such as race riots, antiwar protests, the sexual revolution, the feminist movement, and desegregation in schools. The Republican Party used these concerns to capitalize on a new message of reestablishing the American values that they believed this country was founded on to save the nation’s future.  Ronald Reagan emerged to popularity as a figurehead for the Republican Party highlighting the importance of keeping these American values alive.  It also benefitted the republican cause that he was a Democrat who switched party lines to support these values that he believed the founding fathers established and sparked a revolution over.  It was speeches over traditional values that elevated Reagan to one of the Republicans most admired politicians as he seized the position of governor of California in 1966.

 Reagan continued to preach this message throughout his role as governor until 1976 before running for the republican’s candidacy for the presidency.  He lost the primary to Gerald Ford, but Carter’s following term created a vacuum of political authority with an opportunity for Reagan to finally capitalize on his message of traditional values.  With the two energy crises of the 1970s, the stagflation of the American economy, and the Iranian hostage situation of 1979, the democratic party had lost its traction in the united states.  Reagan had the fortuity to win over many voters who were looking for a new message for American politics. One major area of support that Reagan received during his campaign was from the newly formed Moral Majority. 

The Moral Majority was a coalition of evangelical Christians led by televangelist Jerry Falwell.  These fundamental Christian speakers supported Reagan’s message and gave testimonies, advertisements, and other forms of support with sermons on public television, radio, and in churches.  Reagan took advantage of this support by speaking to large Christian audiences, securing this voter base that had previously support Carter as the governor of Georgia prior to his election as President.  Reagan used rhetoric such as claiming Roe v. Wade allowed “abortion on demand”, arguing against a large controlling government. With the support of grassroots organizations of middle class workers and national organizations such as the Moral Majority, Reagan received the support of a previously democratic voter base who choose to vote for family values instead of previous political ties.