Reagan Is Elected President Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ronald Reagan’s presidency ushered in a new era of conservatism and redefined the role of government for the first time since the New Deal.

Summary of Event

The election of former California governor Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency was a major event in American political history. It offered the first compelling evidence that the U.S. electorate was in the process of a realignment of the national majority assembled by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Realignments in American politics often are generational and reflect the emergence of new voters, new coalitions and voting patterns, and new issues that point to a changing political consensus over public policy. These long-standing trends crystallized in the 1980 election, in which a narrowly elected incumbent president was challenged for renomination and there was deep unrest among the electorate. Presidential elections, U.S.;1980 Presidency, U.S.;Ronald Reagan[Reagan] Elections;U.S. [kw]Reagan Is Elected President (Nov. 4, 1980) [kw]Elected President, Reagan Is (Nov. 4, 1980) [kw]President, Reagan Is Elected (Nov. 4, 1980) Presidential elections, U.S.;1980 Presidency, U.S.;Ronald Reagan[Reagan] Elections;U.S. [g]North America;Nov. 4, 1980: Reagan Is Elected President[04310] [g]United States;Nov. 4, 1980: Reagan Is Elected President[04310] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 4, 1980: Reagan Is Elected President[04310] Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;presidential elections Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;presidential elections Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;presidential elections Anderson, John Bayard

In order to understand Reagan’s election in 1980, one should note that there was great dissatisfaction with his predecessor’s presidency. Jimmy Carter’s Democratic administration was marred by weak appraisals of his performance in public opinion polls: Only 21 percent of the population gave him favorable ratings in July, 1980. This reaction to his administration reflected a record of high inflation, high unemployment rates, and economic challenges from foreign business. Carter also was confronted by an energy crisis, challenges from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the Middle East, the fall of the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the subsequent taking of U.S. hostages, and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. These events combined to create a sense of frustration and even humiliation among voters, resulting in challenges to Carter’s renomination from California governor Jerry Brown Brown, Jerry and Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy. Kennedy, Ted

Ronald Reagan.

(Library of Congress)

Given the vulnerability of President Carter, a large number of Republicans sought the nomination in 1980. Competing against Reagan were Representatives John Bayard Anderson and Philip Crane; Crane, Philip Senators Howard Baker Baker, Howard and Bob Dole; Dole, Bob John Connelly, Connelly, John a former governor of Texas and a former Democrat; and former ambassador George H. W. Bush. After the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, all but Bush and Anderson withdrew. Neither was able to sustain his drive, because of party infighting among moderates and the solidarity of the party’s conservatives. Anderson, however, had attracted a large following among younger voters, independents, moderate Republicans, and even Democrats. He became an independent candidate, running on the platform of “national unity.” With Democrat Patrick Lucey Lucey, Patrick as his running mate, Anderson appeared on the ballot in all fifty states. The popularity of his third party indexed the dissatisfaction of voters and threatened the possibility of a president who did not have a majority of the popular vote.

By May of 1980, however, Reagan had sewn up the Republican nomination and was nominated almost unanimously at the Republican convention. He selected George H. W. Bush as his running mate. The campaign was bitter, with extreme rhetoric on all sides. There were sharp differences between the two major candidates on abortion, the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment for women, welfare, education, taxes, economic policy, and foreign affairs. Nevertheless, the election became a referendum on the Carter years. Ronald Reagan was one of the most ideological candidates in history but succeeded in identifying himself with the fundamental U.S. values of individualism and self-reliance and a strong sense of optimism about the future. In his final television speech before the election, Reagan promised a “new era of reform” and an “era of national renewal.”

Reagan won in forty-four states, with 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49 the third-largest electoral college victory in modern times. Reagan received 43,901,812 votes, for 50.7 percent of the total for all three major candidates. President Carter received 35,483,820 votes (40.6 percent). Anderson received no electoral votes and 6.6 percent of the popular vote. Although Reagan enjoyed an overwhelming victory in the electoral college, he had won only a bare majority in terms of the popular vote. The voter turnout was 52.6 percent of the voting-age population, the lowest since 1948. The Republicans also won control of the Senate for the first time since 1952, gaining twelve seats, and gained seats in the House of Representatives. Reagan’s election was both a repudiation of the Carter administration and a vote for a more conservative philosophy.

Demographic analysis of the presidential vote, based on election-day exit polls, shows that the African American vote was 11 percent for Reagan, 85 percent for Carter, and 3 percent for Anderson. Reagan received 55 percent of the white vote, with 36 percent going to Carter and 7 percent to Anderson. Of those identifying themselves as Hispanic, 56 percent voted for Carter, 35 percent for Reagan, and 8 percent for Anderson. Men gave 55 percent of their vote to Reagan, 36 percent to Carter, and 7 percent to Anderson; women voted 47 percent for Reagan, 45 percent for Carter, and 7 percent for Anderson.

Ronald Reagan’s election marked a significant change in U.S. public philosophy. The essence of this shift can be seen in a phrase from his inaugural address: “In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” Reagan was reelected in 1984 in a landslide victory over President Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale. Mondale, Walter


The eight years of the Reagan presidency were marked by several major events, achievements, and difficulties. In foreign affairs, Reagan’s major goal was to challenge and engage the Soviet Union. The Reagan Doctrine Reagan Doctrine attempted to accomplish this by actively aiding anticommunist forces around the world and by containing Soviet influence. These goals led to the support of rebels fighting in Afghanistan and Africa and to involvement in Latin America against Marxist insurgents. The support of anti-Sandinista forces (Contras) in Nicaragua in particular proved a source of major controversy. During Reagan’s administration, the United States maintained an increased military presence in the Middle East and a willingness to use force to protect U.S. interests in that region. This policy led to confrontations with Syria and Libya, deployment of Marines in Lebanon, and clashes with Iran.

A consequence of the Reagan Doctrine was support for covert actions and the diversion of funds from arms sales to the Contras, which led to the Iran-Contra scandal. Iran-Contra scandal[Iran Contra scandal] Other major foreign policy events included the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987)[Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty] and summit meetings with Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] in Reykjavik, Iceland, and in Washington, D.C. These policies led to a large increase in defense spending and to programs such as the Strategic Defense Initiative Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, popularly known as Star Wars), aimed at defending against possible missile attacks, as well as to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), which eventually led to major disarmament. START I (1991)[Start 01] START II (1993)[Start 02]

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Reagan’s domestic policy was his achievement of major tax cuts and other tax reforms, which he hoped would lead to less government spending. Reagan attempted an ambitious conservative agenda to refocus spending and policy priorities. He proposed cuts in discretionary spending in the general areas of education, welfare, and related programs. Nevertheless, government spending, the size of government, and the federal budget deficit all greatly increased during Reagan’s presidency, in part because of increased defense spending, the expansion of Medicare, and the political difficulties of achieving cuts in popular programs for the poor, the elderly, and other constituency groups. Therefore, although Reagan achieved some success in slowing the rate of increase of spending, the cuts he implemented were offset by increases in other programs. Together with massive tax cuts, these factors contributed to an unprecedented increase in the federal deficit.

However, in retrospect, Reagan’s tax cuts initiated a process of economic expansion that continued with brief hiccups into the twenty-first century. This salutary effect on the U.S. economy led to increased federal revenues and, for a time, a balancing of the federal budget. The success of Republicans in capturing control of Congress during the 1990’s, and then both the presidency and the Congress in 2000, could also be seen as partly rooted in the Reagan revolution of the 1980’s.

President Reagan left office with nearly 68 percent of the population approving his performance. He survived an assassination attempt, policy failures, and political scandals. He remained popular because of his personality, his skillful use of the media, and his fundamental optimism. Perhaps most significant, he succeeded in his main goal the redefinition of the role of government for the first time since the New Deal. Presidential elections, U.S.;1980 Presidency, U.S.;Ronald Reagan[Reagan] Elections;U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrett, Laurence I. Gambling with History. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983. A balanced account of the 1980 election and Reagan’s first two years in office, with emphasis on his personal convictions and ideology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berman, Larry, ed. Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. A collection of perspectives on Reagan’s domestic and foreign policy failures and achievements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Charles O., ed. The Reagan Legacy: Promise and Performance. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1988. Essays assessing the political and institutional strengths and weaknesses of Reagan’s presidency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Jane, and Doyle McManus. Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. An authoritative account of Reagan’s reelection and the political difficulties in his second term.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pomper, Gerald M., ed. The Election of 1980: Reports and Interpretations. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1981. Essays on the political context of the 1980 election. Excellent accounts of the difficulties affecting both political parties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandoz, Ellis, and Cecil V. Crabb, eds. A Tide of Discontent: The 1980 Elections and Their Meaning. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1981. Discusses the significance of Reagan’s first presidential election, emphasizing analysis of the electorate’s voting behavior.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strober, Deborah Hart, and Gerald S. Strober. The Reagan Presidency: An Oral History of the Era. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2003. A sympathetic history of the Republican president that draws on interviews with those who knew him best. An updated edition of Reagan: The Man and His Presidency.

Carter Is Elected President

Hinckley Attempts to Assassinate President Reagan

Reagan Promotes Supply-Side Economics

Reagan Proposes the Strategic Defense Initiative

Jackson Becomes the First Major Black Candidate for U.S. President

Iran-Contra Scandal

Bush Is Elected President

Clinton Wins the U.S. Presidency

Categories: History