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  • Writer's pictureLibby Johnson

Caucus ’80: Same Game, Different Party

This is the third installment in a series of 13 blog posts, each covering the events of a specific historic caucus and placing it in its political context. Each post will be accompanied by reference material currently archived at the Drake University Political Papers Archive.

In the early 1930s, a young actor moved to Des Moines, Iowa for a new job as a radio host at local station WHO. The young man rented a home in Beaverdale, a small neighborhood northwest of downtown Des Moines, and hoped to pick up the standard American accent that movie producers loved and Iowans were known for. He quickly honed his skills in voice acting by providing commentary for baseball games, in some cases so accurately that listeners believed he was actually in the stadium instead of a recording studio in Iowa.

Eventually he had picked up enough expertise in the field that he decided to head back west to California to break into the movie business. He would not be an anonymous name for very much longer. That young actor was Ronald Reagan. More than 40 years later, Reagan would return to Iowa, this time with his sights set on something higher than an entry-level radio job: he was campaigning to be the next President of the United States.

After an admirable performance against incumbent Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primary, Reagan seemed closer to the presidency in 1980 than he ever had before. He had an established and growing support base, there was no incumbent in his party to deal with, and he had already proven that he could win votes in a national setting. Four years earlier, he managed to match or beat Ford in many states, and this time around, he soared to the front of the pack as the clear front runner.

When it came to campaigning in the Hawkeye state, however, Regan took his Iowa roots for granted and left most of the heavy lifting to be done by surrogate campaigners. Although he had significant staff presence in Iowa for the entirety of his campaign, Reagan only visited the state himself on four occasions. He also opted to stay out of debates, town halls, and other meetings with his fellow Republican candidates, choosing instead to campaign in New Hampshire and other early primary states. It was not until the first presidential straw polls started releasing results that Reagan’s hands-off approach to Iowa started to seem flawed.

In poll after poll, the candidate who came out on top was not Reagan, but the little-known Ambassador and RNC Chair George H. W. Bush. The Bush campaign in 1980 was rivaled by none when it came in-person, organized, grassroots campaigning. Bush spent more than a month of total time in the state, repeating and improving upon much of what the Carter team had done in ‘76. Bush knocked doors, he told his stump speech to anyone who would listen, he did the rounds on local radio stations, and he spent hours on the phone trying to recruit voters to attend straw polls. He brought his family to events with him, with his wife Barbara at his side for most of the journey and his sons joining on multiple occasions.

Bush understood early on that as an unknown candidate, he would have to conduct a specific kind of campaign in Iowa if he had a shot. And he was able to do just that, using his charisma and a wide-ranging career in politics and foreign affairs to win over voters at the individual level. On caucus night 1980, the results showed Bush achieving a narrow victory with 31.6% to Ronald Reagan’s 29.5%. Bush’s early strength in Iowa paid off, and he was able to shift his focus to New Hampshire and later primary states with a much-appreciated increase in media coverage.

The Democratic caucus in 1980 was a separate, but still competitive affair. After winning the presidency in 1976, Carter’s team had to come up with a completely new strategy in an attempt to reclaim the White House. He was no longer a no-name peanut farmer from Georgia who was trying to fix Washington as an outsider. He was the President of the United States and therefore complicit in every action of the government for the past four years, good or bad. Carter would have to convince the public why they needed more.

A sitting president’s campaigning is complicated by constant security presence and the intensive responsibilities that come with the office. Furthermore, the Iran Hostage Crisis, which began in November of 1979, led Carter to hold off campaigning outside of Washington until the hostages were released, saying “I regret that I was unable to campaign personally in Iowa, and look forward to the time when international circumstances permit me to seek actively and personally the support of my fellow Democrats.” Because the hostages were not released until the day of Reagan’s inauguration, this essentially meant that Carter was barred from most campaigning, putting him at a disadvantage against his primary rival.

In a highly unusual circumstance for an incumbent presidential campaign year, the Democrats in 1980 had an additional candidate choice in the form of Senator Ted Kennedy. Kennedy branded himself as an alternative option to Carter, whose last year in office had been marred by long gas lines, inflation, and a seemingly indefinite hostage crisis after Iran stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. His campaign had some flaws­­: a late declaration of candidacy and lack of organization early on in Iowa did not help his chances, especially considering the lengths the Carter campaign had already gone through to ensure they were organized in Iowa. Kennedy did end up spending over 20 days in Iowa, although the results of the Democratic caucus were largely predictable. Carter won with 59.1% of the vote to Kennedy’s 31.2%.

The 1980 Iowa Caucuses showed that despite differences in each party’s caucus procedures and platforms, a grassroots Iowa strategy can work for Republicans as well as Democrats. Although Bush would eventually lose to Reagan in the primary, many think it was winning the Iowa Caucuses that gave him enough of a platform to be chosen as the vice-presidential nominee that same year. Getting an Iowa victory under his belt was the first in a long line of incremental steps toward the Presidency. But before Bush got his turn, Ronald Reagan ushered in a decade of ideological change. His decisive victory in the 1980 general election revealed a shift in the country’s overall mood toward conservatism. The Reagan Revolution had officially begun.

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