Back in November 1980, I was almost packed to move to Mexico. My company was transferring me to the bank branch in Mexico City. It was an exciting time, especially as I went through the last details of my Mexico work visa and other matters related to the change.
I was also a volunteer on the Reagan-Bush team. On Friday night, I recall working a phone bank and hearing all the senior people talking about a close election. A few days before, we had seen Mr. Reagan debate President Carter, but the impact of “there you go again” was still unclear. I guess we did not see the impact of that debate until election day.
On election day, I voted early, went to work, and then listened to the radio for any detail I could find.
After dinner., I tuned in to the TV, expecting to stay up all night, as I had in 1976, when the Ford-Carter election literally went into early morning. Around 8:00 P.M., the Eastern results came in, and Carter looked weak. By 9:00, the Southern results started projecting a Reagan victory. By 11:00, the Western results made it a landslide.
The Reagan-Bush team got 489 electoral votes and almost 44 million votes. It was amazing, to say the least.
Of course, the next part was even better. The GOP picked up Senate seats and ended up with a majority for the first time in years. The GOP won open seats in Alabama, Alaska, and Florida. The real fun was defeating our favorite liberals, such as Frank Church of Idaho; Birch E. Bayh II of Indiana; George S. McGovern of South Dakota, the 1972 party nominee; and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. It was not a good night to be a liberal Democrat between the coasts! I guess we were seeing the beginning of what we would later call the red states!
Over time, I’ve tried to read as much as possible about that election of 1980, especially the last week, where millions of votes moved to Reagan. Victor Davis Hanson explained it in a good post back in 2012:
Finally, in late October, Reagan capitulated to Carter’s preconditions and met him one time, face to face, without Anderson present.
In other words, until the very last week of the campaign, Reagan had an uphill fight. True, he eventually won a landslide victory in the Electoral College (489 to 49) and beat Carter handily in the popular vote. Yet Reagan only received a 51-percent majority.
What had saved Reagan from a perfect storm of negative factors – gaffes, additional conservative candidates on the ballot, a single debate, and a biased media – was not just the debate. Voter turnout was relatively low at only 53 percent. If Reagan’s conservative base was united and energized, Carter’s proved divided and indifferent.
One way or another, millions of voters that year made up their minds late. In the end, I had a wonderful time celebrating the results and watching some of those liberals like Church and McGovern go down!
A few days later, everyone in Mexico was curious as to how Reagan did it. I had a lot of fun explaining the victory south of the border.
We remembered the 1980 election with Bill Katz of Urgent Agenda on Monday’s podcast.