All Sections

Home | Voters First

1980: Reagan begins his sweep

May 03. 2011 12:25PM

The March 10, 1980 issue of Time told the story of the New Hampshire primary with its cover - a grinning Ronald Reagan with a New Hampshire backdrop, accompanied by the headline "Ronnie's Romp!"

The GOP primary victory for Reagan over runner-up George Bush by 39,540 votes dramatically reshaped a race, which had already been turned on its head when Bush upset Reagan in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses on January 2 1.

This rapid reversal of fortunes in the earliest primary created a Reagan resurgence so forceful that he was able to sweep through the remainder of the primaries with only four losses to Bush: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Bush was the final challenger to Reagan to withdraw from the race; he did so on May 26.

Reagan's landslide victory here was built upon the conservative constituency that had rallied to his anti-federalism philosophy and "The Speech" Reagan gave for Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, which placed him in the national political spotlight.

Reagan's 72,983 votes was the third highest ever to be achieved in the New Hampshire decision. Bush tallied 33,443, Tennessee Senator Howard Baker was third with 18,943 and U.S. Representative John Anderson of Illinois finished fourth with 14,458. The return crippled the challenges of Kansas Senator Robert Dole (Ford's running mate in 1976), U.S. Representative Philip Crane of Illinois and former Texas Governor John Connally. These three combined received only 5,454 votes, just 3.7 percent of the total. All soon withdrew from the race, as did Baker.

The Reagan landslide surprised many of the hundreds of reporters who flooded the state the final week of the campaign. Although much attention has been accorded the "Saturday Night Massacre" in Nashua, in which Bush had sided with the Nashua Telegraph in refusing to permit Anderson, Baker, Crane and Dole to join a pre-arranged debate with Reagan, the Reagan resurgence was a broader phenomenon. The Nashua affair was only the most publicized portion of it.

Gerald Carmen of Manchester, the head of the Reagan primary campaign that year, said of the impact of the debate, "I think Ronald Reagan was going to be elected anyway. I think Iowa was an unexpected happening - it was a blip on the road. What happened in New Hampshire was the recovery getting back on the plan. I think we were going to do that without the debate. The debate was just a tremendous happening."

The effort for the former governor of California was aided in no small measure by the unremitting editorial support of the Union Leader, which was every bit as harsh on Bush as it was favorably disposed toward Reagan.

On February 7, 1980, publisher William Loeb editorialized: "Bush is obviously the candidate of David Rockefeller and the Trilateral Commission. If Bush, who is an oil man from Texas, is able to be nominated by the Republicans, then you see David Rockefeller and the Trilateral Commission will have it...As this newspaper has said before, what you are seeing in New Hampshire is an attempt by the entire Eastern Establishment, the Rockefellers and all the other power interests in the East, to snow New Hampshire voters under with so much propaganda that they will fall for this phony candidate called George Bush."

Bush's critics had charged that the Texan's candidacy was no more than his resume. The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and chairman of the Republican National Committee was faulted for failing to define his stands forcefully and thoroughly enough.

Bush's contention in a Los Angeles Times interview on January 24, 1980, that in the event of a nuclear war you have a "survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens," was attacked by editorial writers and in particular one primary opponent, liberal Republican John Anderson. At that time Anderson asked, "What madness is it that impels people to think a nuclear war is something that can be fought and is survivable?"

The influence of the Manchester paper in its home area was clear in this election. Reagan, who had carried the state's largest city by 2,172 votes against President Ford in 1976, this time won by 6,384 votes, capturing 74.8 percent to Bush's 9.4 percent. In Hillsborough County (which includes Manchester), Reagan's victory margin of 2,735 four years earlier rose to 14,628.

On election night, the Bush camp waited for the returns from the cities and major towns to offset the massive early lead Reagan had built in the Queen City and the smaller towns. Although President Ford had won nine of the 13 cities, Bush won just two, Lebanon and Portsmouth. Bush carried just two of the 15 largest towns - Hanover and Durham. The Texan failed to capture the state capital of Concord or the city of Keene, long citadels of moderate and liberal persuasion in the Grand Old Party.

In early November 1979 in Boston, Senator Edward Kennedy had declared his candidacy for the White House by stating in part, "This country is not prepared to sound retreat. It is ready to advance. It is willing to make a stand. And so am I."

But in the week in which Kennedy announced, a series of unexpected events had already begun to doom his challenge to President Carter. The insurgent candidate did himself no good by granting a televised interview to CBS that was by all accounts a debacle, showing Kennedy at his worst. And earlier that same day, the American embassy in Tehran had been stormed by Islamic militants and its staff taken hostage. On December 27, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In general, voters rally behind a beleaguered President during a foreign policy crisis, and Kennedy found himself facing a stiffer challenge than had been expected.

The Kennedy campaign in the first primary proved an inept operation. In the words of Jeanne Shaheen, the state director of the 1980 Carter campaign: "They ran a lousy campaign. I haven't met anybody who worked in that 1980 campaign for Kennedy who has very nice things to say about the way the campaign was run. They all have nice things to say about Kennedy, but not about the campaign."

Plans had been made for President Carter to visit the state once a month during the last part of the campaign, but that strategy was discarded. A decision was made that the President would not venture from the Washington area until the hostage crisis was resolved. This left the effort for Carter up to his most prominent "surrogates," in particular First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale and popular Governor Hugh Gallen.

A top aide to Gallen, Dayton Duncan, said the President's "Rose Garden strategy" worried the governor. "He made it clear to (President Carter) he would be much better off if he were not in the White House but up in New Hampshire campaigning. I think probably to a certain extent that urged the governor to work even harder."

Although the President would not campaign in person, the federal treasury would prove to be a potent stand-in. Millions of dollars in federal grants were earmarked for New Hampshire just prior to the primary. According to one newspaper account, "the President is tossing an additional $70 million in government funds into the state for an array of projects that Gallen wants."

Senator Kennedy was able to carry just one county Rockingham, which borders on the Bay State. He carried only three cities - Dover, Portsmouth and Somersworth - and he lost the cities to the President, 25,200 to 20,402. In the 15 largest towns, Carter won 9,124 to 8,801, with Kennedy able to carry just Exeter, Hampton, Londonderry, Pelham and Salem, all close to Massachusetts.

Although the New Hampshire outcome provided a launching pad for one former governor of California, it served as a burial ground for the then-governor of the Golden State - Edmund (Jerry) Brown Jr.

In New Hampshire, Brown failed to improve upon his weak third-place finish in the Maine caucus on February 10, in which President Jimmy Carter finished first and Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy was second. On February 26 in the Granite State, the President received 47.2 percent, Kennedy 37.4 percent and Brown just 9.6 percent. After his weak showing, Brown ceased to be a factor in the race, finally dropping out on April 1. Brown's efforts never completely recovered from the "political meltdown" he endured the night of April 2, 1979, when he traveled across the country for the sole purpose of testifying before a legislative committee in support of a resolution advocating a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.

Brown was caught in the crossfire between Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, and the mastermind behind the successful effort to convince Brown not to testify after all was House Minority Leader Chris Spirou, who said of Brown: "He was a sitting duck for me and I took care of him."

Another Democratic legislator to observe Brown that evening in the State House was Harry Spanos of Newport, the Democratic nominee for governor in 1976. He stated of Brown's performance: "it showed a lack of leadership and a lack of understanding of the democratic process and it indicated to me an absolute lack of ability to lead the nation if by some chance he ever wound up in the White House."

In the fall the team of Reagan-Bush easily carried the state - the margin was 112,841 votes. The 12.9 percent that Independent John Anderson received was the fourth highest this former Republican was able to garner, with Vermont's and Massachusetts's 15 percent the highest.

Across the nation, Reagan won by 8.4 million votes and took all six states in New England save for Rhode Island.

More Headlines

NH Republicans call for unity ahead of November midterms

Mona Charen: Imperial me