It’s Morning Again: Ronald Reagan and the 1984 Presidential Election

During the 1984 Presidential election, the nation’s 40th President Ronald Wilson Reagan faced re-election for a second term in the White House. The race was an easy one, President Reagan winning one of the largest electoral and popular landslides in history. Three major factors can be attributed to this victory. These factors include the rise of patriotism and optimism in the United States, the state of the American economy, and the failure of his opponent, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota, to attack Reagan beyond simple partisan attacks and being a generally lackluster candidate. Because of these three factors, President Reagan’s victory seemed easy, contributing to his own legacy as a Commander-in-chief loved not only by Republicans, but by all Americans.

On the night of August 23, 1984, President Ronald Reagan accepted the nomination from his party to run for a second term in the White House. Speaking to a jubilant crowd of delegates and other party members, the President outlined the differences between himself and his opponent, former Vice President Mondale, stating that the candidates held opposing visions of the United States’ future. The President said that there was “two fundamentally different ways of governing– their government of pessimism, fear, and limits, or ours of hope, confidence, and growth.”[1] This statement best outlined the first of three reasons why Reagan won the 1984 Presidential election, that being the sense of optimism which gripped the nation that year and became a characteristic of much of his Administration. One delegate to the Republican National Convention said that “I’ve never felt so good about this country in my life,”[2] further evidence that optimism in the country was at a high that it had not seen in decades. The President symbolized that shift in optimism, his bright and sunny outlook helping not only to provide the American people with a positive vision of the future, but also to provide Reagan with his easy re-election.

Just a little over a month prior to the Republican National Convention, on July 19, 1984 Democratic National Convention took place in San Francisco. Vice President Walter Mondale gave the opposite vision of the future that the President gave. Where Reagan only briefly went on the offensive against his opponent, the nominee in San Francisco spent a significant portion of his speech relaying to his audience a pessimistic vision of the nation, saying of the President that “We are living on borrowed money and borrowed time. These deficits hike interest rates, clobber exports, stunt investment, kill jobs, undermine growth, cheat our kids, and shrink our future.”[3] Along with attacks on the economic state of the country, Mondale also criticized Reagan’s foreign policy, stating that when he visited a class in Texas and asked children about how they envisioned the future, that “…they talked to me about nuclear war.”[4] The former Vice President’s speech had a stark contrast to President Reagan’s speech, where instead of offering his own record and going into detail on his own policies, he instead attempted to paint a darker vision of the future under four more years of a Reagan Administration.

Polls showed that a significant portion of Americans at the start of the campaign believed that the nation was better off than it was four years ago, Reagan even using the famous campaign motto of 1980 to help propel him to victory. In August 1984, polls showed that fifty-five percent of Americans felt that they were better off than they were in 1980, while seventy-two percent felt that they would be better off if they voted for Reagan over Mondale.[5] The former Vice President’s attacks depicted a bleak future for the United States, to the point that his negative predictions harmed his campaign. In addition to those numbers, Time reported that “…71% of whites said they felt that things in the U.S. were going well; non-whites were evenly divided on the question.”[6] Traditional Democratic voting blocs like non-white minorities were divided over the question, and America’s optimistic mood was not just present among traditional Republican and conservative voting groups, but among all Americans. This greatly contributed to Reagan’s victory in 1984, and signaled Mondale’s decline even among traditional liberal demographic groups.

Perhaps best exemplifying this rise in optimism and patriotism within the United States which not only characterized the campaign but also much of the Reagan administration was the President himself, who attacked his opponent by vowing to continue the course his administration began on January 20, 1981. Reagan said during a campaign stop in Iowa on November 4 that “My opponent wants very badly to make you believe his enormous tax increase proposal won’t hurt your families.”[7] He added that “the principal difference of our vision for America will let the eagle soar…Theirs would return us to the days of the sore eagle.”[8] In providing patriotic imagery and claiming that Mondale’s platform can undo the major foreign and domestic advances of the previous four years, the President built up the case to the American people that the future did indeed hold good fortune for the United States and that the only way to continue his revival of the country’s economy and optimistic outlook was to re-elect him to another term as President.

The second major contributing factor to President Reagan’s re-election in November 1984 was the state of the economy. At the start of his Administration, the nation suffered through the recession of the early 1980s, which saw high unemployment as well as high inflation. Commanding the recovery, the President by 1984 saw the economic state of the union “…barreling ahead at an 8.8% annual growth rate during the first half of 1984,” and that “…it still has enough momentum to keep going at least through 1985,”[9] a clearly positive economic picture for a country recovering from the recession and from the tumultuous state of the economy during the 1970s. Furthermore, growth was even predicted to “remain at a healthy 3.5% pace,”[10] into 1985. This picture for the American economy greatly contributed to the President’s attempt for re-election, giving him teeth when attacking Mondale’s criticisms of his administration and justification in claiming that a Mondale administration would undo the financial gains made by the country during Reagan’s first four years in office.

Both the rise of the American economy from the fiscal cesspits of the 1970s and the early 1980s as well as the rise in patriotism could be connected and work hand-in-hand to provide the President his 1984 landslide victory. During the campaign season, “…the economy shines for the Republicans. Free enterprise is back in vogue; central planning is scorned. Despite Democratic complaints of unfairness, the financial surge elevates all sectors of society,”[11] a clear indication that Reagan’s financial policies, whether they had an actual effect on the American economy, were given credit for the financial well-being of the country in 1984. According to National Review, “Capitalism became fashionable even on college campuses…Young people between the ages of 18 and 25 are pro-Reagan 2 to 1.”[12] This was further evidence of the popularity for capitalism as well as the noticeably more conservative policies of President Reagan during his first term, contributing greatly to turnout going to his favor.

The President’s positive economic record also had a considerable impact, while Mondale’s appeared to be the opposite, where according to one analyst “…on question after question, vote after vote, Senator Mondale took the straight liberal line,”[13] the former Senator and Vice President did not only have a voting record from his tenure in the United States Senate, but also one from his time as the nation’s 42nd Vice President. This disconnect, where Mondale attacked Reagan despite having no plausible alternative to President’s economic accomplishments was undesired to an electorate that had an optimistic future ahead of them. Instead, the former Vice President’s “…. only hope is to run against the prospect of future catastrophe,”[14] attacking the President for a possible future economic downturn rather than any economic issues that were prevalent at the time. This gave Mondale’s attack against Reagan no teeth, granting him a mandate to use America’s economic prosperity in his favor.

The third and final factor in Reagan’s re-election was his opponent, former Vice President Walter Mondale. Mondale, a liberal Democrat, faced significant opposition not only from the Republican Party, but also his own. One Capitol Hill Democrat stated that “If the Democrats don’t get hold of themselves and find an identity other than their liberal policies of today, you’ll see a realignment in the next four to eight years.”[15] This was a sign that the Democratic Party’s traditionally liberal ideas were no longer popular. College students, which at one point were perhaps the strongest base of support for the Democrats, now found themselves trending for the more conservative Republican Party. This proved detrimental to the Mondale, who despite his attempts to change his platform could not fix the stigma against his association with the liberal-wing of his political party.

Mondale however did not relent in his attacks on the Administration. On October 31, while campaigning in his home-state of Minnesota, the former Senator said that “We’ve got communities on the Iron Range where over 50 percent of the people who were working just a few years ago are out of work,”[16] evidence that Reagan’s economic recovery did not in fact effect all segments of American society, something which Mondale failed to exploit. The former Vice President also constantly went on the attack against Reagan. Following the Presidential debates in October 1984, Mondale still criticized the President and still predicted economic woes for all Americans. Despite his own proposals, he did not have much to attack the President whereas Reagan, who was according to National Review “…running on his record, and it has been good–inflation, interest rates, taxes, all down; unemployment steady,”[17] had an extensive platform to run on. Mondale’s platform was weak, and his attacks had no grounds against the popular incumbent, contributing in part to the Minnesotan’s weaknesses during the general election.

While Vice President Mondale’s performance on the October 7, 1984 debate in Louisville, Kentucky, surprised everyone, where the “debate was a sudden deflation…Now Reagan seemed flat and disconcerted and, weirdly, somehow a stranger to himself,”[18] the candidate’s own flaws appeared to overshadow even what should have been an easy setback to exploit in his favor just a month out from the election. Perhaps Mondale’s greatest undoing was himself. Throughout the campaign, he proved to be a lackluster candidate who held a “dispiriting alternative to a personally popular sitting President in a period of peace and economic recovery,”[19] giving alternatives which seemed to be solutions to non-existent or exaggerated problems facing the United States. His own style of speaking also proved to be his undoing, Mondale being criticized with his sentences sounding “…like great labor, as if his voice were being forced…Laboring and pleading,”[20] whereas compared to the confident and charismatic former actor, the former Vice President seemed to be stale and largely easy to ignore or forget. While Reagan’s first debate performance kept his momentum from moving smoothly into November, his campaign quickly rebounded, and by the second debate on October 21, 1984, at Kansas City, Missouri, a victory for the popular incumbent still seemed inevitable, proving that despite having an opportunity to attack Reagan during the time between the campaigns, Mondale did not exploit it.

After the second debate in Kansas City, Mondale admitted that “I would say my chances of winning probably disappeared,”[21] conceding that Reagan managed to use his charisma and charm against the dull Minnesotan. According to The New York Times, throughout the campaign he “failed to shape a coherent message, that his key theme of reducing the Federal budget deficit with a tax increase had been politically unwise and that he often performed poorly on television,”[22] indicating that he stood no chance against Reagan’s spectacular record that seemed to undo any criticisms the former Vice President lodged against him. Because of the “good economic times,” and “diminished international tensions,”[23] Mondale correctly believed that it was a difficult battle, one which observers note was likely only made more difficult by Mondale’s poor campaigning and inability to attack Reagan’s record properly. This is therefore one of the primary reasons for Reagan’s victory in the 1984 Presidential election, and perhaps a characterization of the state of the Democratic Party during the 1980s.

These three factors all contributed to President Ronald Reagan’s massive victory in the 1984 Presidential election. On November 6, the incumbent won every state apart from Walter Mondale’s home-state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. The issues of the rising American economy as well as the rising sense of patriotism among Americans handed President Reagan the mandate to hold another four years in office, and the weaknesses of his opponent only went further to grant him that mandate. Pulling together these three factors created the atmosphere which granted the President of the United States an easy re-election, and it helped to not only define much of the Reagan Presidency, but also the atmosphere of the country throughout the 1980s, a period where America’s prospects were the reverse of those from the previous decade. Instead of a period of gloom, the people of the United States instead looked confidently into the future with a new day in America just over the horizon.

[1] Ronald Reagan, “Remarks Accepting the Presidential Nomination.” Speech, Republican National Convention, Dallas, TX, August 23, 1984.

[2] John J. McLaughlin, “The New Nationalism,” National Review, September 21, 1984.

[3] Walter Mondale, “Mondale’s Acceptance Speech.” Speech, Democratic National Convention, San Francisco, CA, July 19, 1984.

[4] Mondale, “Mondale’s Acceptance Speech.”

[5] Adam Clymer, “Most In Poll Say They’re Better Off Than In 1980,” The New York Times, August 17, 1984.

[6] Kurt Andersen, “America’s Upbeat Mood,” Time, September 24, 1984.

[7] Francis X. Clines, “Reagan Predicts Woes If He Loses,” The New York Times, November 4, 1984.

[8] Clines, “Reagan Predicts Woes If He Loses.”

[9] Charles P. Alexander, “The Recovery Rolls On,” Time, September 24, 1984.

[10] Alexander, “The Recovery Rolls On.”

[11] John J. McLaughlin, “Democratic Breakaway,” National Review, October 19, 1984.

[12] McLaughlin, “Democratic Breakaway.”

[13] “The Debate,” National Review, November 2, 1984.

[14] “The Debate,” National Review.

[15] McLaughlin, “Democratic Breakaway.”

[16] Bernard Weinraub, “Mondale, At Chicago Rally, Says ‘Tide is Turning,’ In ’84 Election,” The New York Times, October 30, 1984.

[17] “The Debate,” National Review.

[18] Lance Morrow, “Charms and Maledictions,” Time, October 22, 1984.

[19]Morrow, “Charms and Malediction.”

[20] Morrow, “Charms and Malediction.”

[21] Bernard Weinraub, “Reagan, Taking 49 States and 59% of Vote, Vows to Stress Arms Talks and Economy,” The New York Times, November 7, 1984.

[22] Weinraub, “Reagan, Taking 49 States and 59% of Vote, Vows to Stress Arms Talks and Economy.”

[23]  Weinraub, “Reagan, Taking 49 States and 59% of Vote, Vows to Stress Arms Talks and Economy.”

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