Carter's Collapse and the Election of 1980

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.    

Credits

Zachary Howard, Luke Barnard, Kailyn Drohan, Jack Johnson, Barrett Snyder