THE CAMPAIGN OF 1984
Republicans enthusiastically renominated Reagan and Bush in 1984. The President's popularity had risen dramatically since its nadir in late 1982, largely because the economic boom that had begun in 1983 picked up steam the following year. Lower inflation, reduced tax rates, less joblessness, and a robust gross national product provided Reagan and his supporters with a litany of accomplishments. In foreign affairs, a massive defense build-up and the President's muscular rhetoric led many Americans to conclude that Reagan was protecting the nation's interests and its international stature. The sum of these accomplishments was a restored public confidence and national pride epitomized by the chants of "USA, USA" that began at the Olympic summer games in Los Angeles and were often heard at Reagan rallies in the fall. The mood was captured by the Reagan campaign theme, expressed radiantly in feel-good television commercials: Morning Again in America.
The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination was Minnesotan Walter Mondale, who served as vice president under Jimmy Carter. Mondale fought back determined challenges in the primaries from Senator Gary Hart of Colorado and civil rights activist Reverend Jessie Jackson to secure the nomination, which he received on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, California. Mondale defied convention—and the advice of some of his strategists—by proclaiming in his acceptance speech that he would raise taxes and predicting that Reagan would also raise them if reelected. He also injected a note of excitement into the campaign by picking a woman, New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, as his running mate.
Reagan's reelection campaign was in some respects the inverse of his 1980 campaign, when he asked voters if they were better off than they had been four years earlier. The polls in 1984 showed that a large majority of Americans were now answering this question affirmatively. Reagan's strategists ignored Mondale for much of the campaign. They expected—and wanted—the election to be a referendum on the Reagan presidency.
Mondale's strategy was to acknowledge Reagan's popularity but question his policies. The Democratic contender declared that Reagan's tax cuts benefited the rich. He claimed that the President endorsed a conservative social agenda—opposing abortion rights and favoring prayer in schools—that was out of touch with the American mainstream. Mondale warned that Republican fiscal policies had created huge budget deficits that endangered the nation's long-term economic health; in a tactic that showed more honesty than political good sense, he reiterated his acceptance promise that he would raise taxes to balance the federal budget. Finally, Mondale repeatedly suggested that Reagan was too old for the presidency.
Throughout most of the summer and into the early fall, Reagan held a double-digit lead in the polls. His campaign, though, was largely on automatic pilot. The President's political advisers kept his schedule light and the candidate away from the news media. But Reagan's campaign team could not protect Reagan from himself. The President was ill prepared for his first televised debate with Mondale in October. He stumbled over lines and responded ineffectively to Mondale's charges that he favored reduction of Social Security and Medicare benefits. Reagan's poor performance had done what the Democrats had been unable to do: raise the issue of whether he was too old to be President. Reagan's political team set about rebuilding their 73-year-old candidate's confidence, streamlining his preparation—at the urging of Nancy Reagan—for a second debate with Mondale. In Kansas City, a rested and revitalized President took the stage. The night's highpoint occurred when Reagan fielded a question about his age, remarking—in deadpan fashion—that "I will not make age an issue of this campaign . . . I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Mondale laughed uncomfortably, realizing that Reagan had disposed of the age issue with a one-liner. Reagan had gone up in the polls after his "there-you-go-again" debate with Carter four years earlier. In 1984, a campaign in which he led from beginning to end, Reagan's numbers soared even higher after the second debate with Mondale. In the aftermath of the debate, Reagan's lead shot up to 17 percentage points; throughout the remainder of the campaign, it would never dip below 15 percentage points.
The Reagan-Bush ticket won an overwhelming victory on election day, carrying every state but Mondale's Minnesota and the District of Columbia, and defeating Mondale in the Electoral College by 525 to 13. Reagan's popular vote total was even more impressive—54 million votes to Mondale's 37 million—a margin exceeded only by Nixon's win over George McGovern in 1972.
Reagan's victory was a testament to the President's personal popularity but also arguably a ratification of public support for his economic program, especially tax cuts. Reagan won a majority of independents and more than a fifth of the Democratic vote. He ran more strongly among the youngest cohort of voters than any Republican in the twentieth century. Traditional Republican support among white Protestants, small-town and rural Americans, college graduates, upper-class Americans, and white-collar managers and professionals remained exceedingly strong. Catholics who had supported Reagan in 1980 voted for him again in 1984, as did a large number of skilled and unskilled workers, high school graduates, and persons of moderate incomes.
But Reagan's reelection was more a personal triumph than a partisan endorsement. He had run a campaign with few issues that gave few clues as to his direction in a second term. And his coattails were short, as Democrats kept control of the House of Representatives. Republicans clung to control of the Senate in 1984, but the midterm elections of 1986 would put Democrats back in the majority.
Source: Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia. “Ronald Reagan: Campaigns and Elections.” Accessed May 24, 2016. http://millercenter.org/president/biography/reagan-campaigns-and-elections.
Dave Kilmer. 1984. "Reagan-Bush ’84, Bringing America Back!" Offset print Poster. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540
Kip Overton. 1984. "Liberty: Mondale-Ferraro; Liberty Leading the People – 1984." [Based on Eugène Delacroix] Scala/Art Resource, NY and JFB, Consolidated Sales, Ltd. Photomechanical Print. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540