These domestic challenges, combined with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the hostage crisis in Iran, hobbled Carter heading into his 1980 reelection campaign. Many Democrats were dismayed by his policies. The president of the International Association of Machinists dismissed Carter as “the best Republican President since Herbert Hoover.”20 Angered by the White House’s refusal to back national health insurance, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy challenged Carter in the Democratic primaries. Running as the party’s liberal standard-bearer and heir to the legacy of his slain older brothers, Kennedy garnered support from key labor unions and left-wing Democrats. Carter ultimately vanquished Kennedy, but the close primary tally exposed the president’s vulnerability.
Carter’s opponent in the general election was Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor who had served two terms as governor of California. Reagan ran as a staunch fiscal conservative and a Cold War hawk, vowing to reduce government spending and shrink the federal bureaucracy. Reagan also accused his opponent of failing to confront the Soviet Union and vowed steep increases in military spending. Carter responded by calling Reagan a warmonger, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the confinement of 52 American hostages in Iran discredited Carter’s foreign policy in the eyes of many Americans.
The incumbent fared no better on domestic affairs. Unemployment remained at nearly 8 percent.21 Meanwhile the Federal Reserve’s anti-inflation measures pushed interest rates to an unheard-of 18.5 percent.22 Reagan seized on these bad economic trends. On the campaign trail he brought down the house by proclaiming: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job, and a depression is when you lose your job.” Reagan would then pause before concluding, “And a recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his job.”23
Social and cultural issues presented yet another challenge for the president. Although a self-proclaimed “born-again” Christian and Sunday school teacher, Carter struggled to court the religious right. Carter scandalized devout Christians by admitting to lustful thoughts during an interview with Playboy magazine in 1976, telling the reporter he had “committed adultery in my heart many times.”24 Although Reagan was only a nominal Christian and rarely attended church, the religious right embraced him. Reverend Jerry Falwell directed the full weight of the Moral Majority behind Reagan. The organization registered an estimated two million new voters in 1980. Reagan also cultivated the religious right by denouncing abortion and endorsing prayer in school. The IRS tax exemption issue resurfaced as well, with the 1980 Republican platform vowing to “halt the unconstitutional regulatory vendetta launched by Mr. Carter’s IRS commissioner against independent schools.”25 Early in the primary season, Reagan condemned the policy during a speech at South Carolina’s Bob Jones University, which had recently sued the IRS after the school’s ban on interracial dating led to the loss of its tax-exempt status.
Reagan’s campaign appealed subtly but unmistakably to the racial hostilities of white voters. The candidate held his first post–nominating convention rally at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964. In his speech, Reagan championed the doctrine of states’ rights, which had been the rallying cry of segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s. In criticizing the welfare state, Reagan had long employed thinly veiled racial stereotypes about a “welfare queen” in Chicago who drove a Cadillac while defrauding the government or a “strapping young buck” purchasing T-bone steaks with food stamps.26 Like George Wallace before him, Reagan exploited the racial and cultural resentments of struggling white working-class voters. And like Wallace, he attracted blue-collar workers in droves.
With the wind at his back on almost every issue, Reagan only needed to blunt Carter’s characterization of him as an angry extremist. Reagan did so during their only debate by appearing calm and amiable. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” he asked the American people at the conclusion of the debate.27 The American people answered no. Reagan won the election with 51 percent of the popular vote to Carter’s 41 percent. (Independent John Anderson captured 7 percent.)28 Despite capturing only a slim majority, Reagan scored a decisive 489–49 victory in the Electoral College.29 Republicans gained control of the Senate for the first time since 1955 by winning twelve seats. Liberal Democrats George McGovern, Frank Church, and Birch Bayh went down in defeat, as did liberal Republican Jacob Javits. The GOP picked up thirty-three House seats, narrowing the Democratic advantage in the lower chamber.30 The New Right had arrived in Washington, D.C.