Primaries Past (1980): Young Consultant Helps Reagan Clinch
Young Lee Atwater's brash political style helped Reagan to a win in the Palmetto State — and eventually the presidency.
Every Tuesday from now until the Republican Primary on Jan. 21, Patch will look back at the primaries in South Carolina from 1980-2008, with an emphasis on the GOP. Every Republican winner in South Carolina earned the nomination, an unprecedented streak in electoral history. This is the first in the series.
When the presidential primaries of 1980 began, the United States was in a situation similar to the one it is in now.
The country had high unemployment and had problems in its economy that appeared so profound as to seem irrevocable.
It was soaring inflation and dependence on foreign oil that plagued the country 32 years ago. As is the case now, Iran was at the center of foreign policy discussions.
Back then, it was not concern over the Iranians’ development of a nuclear weapon, but the 52 hostages that Islamist extremists had captured and held in seclusion for over a year that worried voters. The idea that an effectively third-world country could hold such power over one of the world’s superpowers was demoralizing to the country’s psyche.
Additionally, America was also still very much engaged in the Cold War and there was sentiment that the war was being lost to the Soviet Union, both economically and militarily (by decade’s end fears about the Soviet threat would be all but dissipated).
Indeed in 1980 as now, America was having a “crisis of confidence,” as President Jimmy Carter described it in a speech a year earlier that was later dubbed The Malaise Speech — even though Carter never actually used the word “malaise.”
Like President Obama, Carter was unpopular with the distinct portions of the electorate, falling below 30 percent in some opinion polls, a valley to which Obama has not even sunk. Much like Obama, Carter had been swept into office in 1976 by voters seeking change and still weary from the Watergate scandal. By 1980, voters were again seeking change.
Given Carter’s vulnerabilities, it was no surprise that a number of Republicans were lined up to challenge him.
They included some heavy hitters: former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, who had issued a strong challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976; former CIA head George H.W. Bush; former Texas Gov. John Connally; Bob Dole, a former vice presidential candidate and powerful member of the Senate; and Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker.
From the start, Reagan was deemed the frontrunner.
But that frontrunner status was threatened immediately as Bush edged Reagan in the Iowa caucus. From there, it was effectively a two-horse race. Reagan won handily in New Hampshire and he and Bush split Massachusetts and Vermont in very close vote totals.
South Carolina, as it would so many times in coming elections, would be the turning point. Whoever won the Palmetto State would have the momentum and be catapulted to the nomination.
Bush, a native of the Northeast and a former Texas Congressman, had very little appeal in the Southeast. He campaigned briefly in South Carolina and instead left it to Connally to try to derail Reagan.
If the 1980 Presidential election is widely known as the start of the Republican Revolution (holding the Oval Office for 20 of the next 28 years), to political insiders it is known as the debut on the national stage of one Lee Atwater.
A South Carolina native, Atwater became known as the father of anything-goes politics, doing whatever it took to elect his candidate, including bringing personal matters to the public sphere and playing the race card.
Prior to the presidential race in 1980, Atwater, then just 29, worked for Floyd Spence in his congressional race against Democrat Tom Turnipseed. During the campaign, Atwater leaked to reporters that Turnipseed had undergone electroconvulsive therapy while battling depression as a teenager. The revelation sunk Turnipseed.
In 1988, Atwater would help George H.W. Bush to the presidency with the famed Willie Horton commercial.
It wasn’t the first time Atwater used race as a wedge issue. In 1980, Atwater planted a story with The State newspaper that implied Connally was trying to buy off the black vote in his efforts to defeat Reagan.
When the story appeared, the white vote flocked to Reagan, who ended up with 55 percent of the vote to 30 for Connally. The reporter who wrote the story, Lee Bandy, later said, “I don't think Ronald Reagan would have been elected if he had lost the South Carolina primary. That story got out, thanks to me, and it probably killed Connally. Lee saved Ronald Reagan's candidacy.”
Bandy also acknowledged that he had been used a political pawn. “A few years later, Lee laughed about that story. He said, 'Bandy, you got used.’”
Reagan went on to rout Bush in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, Southeast states where race was still a wedge issue. Bush would win Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Michigan, but the race was effectively over.
On the Democratic side, Carter was challenged by Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. No president since has undergone such a serious challenge from within his own party. Much as Reagan’s challenge in 1976 to Ford showed Ford’s weakness, Kennedy’s challenge to Carter showed Carter’s. Carter was able to outlast Kennedy, who took the fight all the way to the convention, but it came at great cost.
By the time the general election began in earnest after Labor Day, Carter was clearly a weakened candidate, a fact that took some time for Reagan to reveal. But he did. He might not have gotten the opportunity had he not won in South Carolina.
After propelling Bush to victory in 1988, Atwater was named chairman of the Republican National Committee. He also worked on re-election campaigns of S.C. Gov. Carroll Campbell and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. In March 1990, Atwater was diagnosed with a brain tumor. By March of the following year he was dead, a month past his 40th birthday.
It has become part of the Reagan legend that he routed Carter in 1980 — and he did defeat Carter by a 51-41 percent margin in the popular vote (independent candidate John Anderson garnered nearly 7 percent) and won 44 of 50 states. But Reagan won 10 states by less than three percent, with South Carolina being one of the 10.
As a devout Baptist and governor of the neighboring state of Georgia, Carter took South Carolina in the 1976 general election. So his loss here was a portent of his fortunes nationally. Also, Reagan’s victory was actually one of the most remarkable comebacks in political history. With less than two weeks before the Election Day, Reagan trailed Carter by eight points in the Gallup Poll.
Historians generally agree that the turning point of the race came in the one and only debate between Reagan and Carter on Oct. 28. Reagan’s sunny optimism was a sharp contrast to Carter’s frank pessimism. Carter ended up losing by the biggest margin of any incumbent president since Herbert Hoover fell to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. As an added insult, the Iranian hostages that had become a focal point of the race were released shortly after Reagan was sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 1981.
The 1980 presidential had several firsts that became routine in subsequent races. Among them:
- A major television network (NBC) declared a winner before polls had closed on the West Coast.
- For the first time the National Rifle Association endorsed a candidate (Reagan).
- Reagan was the first presidential candidate to ask voters a question that they are now asked every election cycle: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”