Political primaries can often seem either like lotteries or results with pre-determined outcomes. There are often marks or steps which must be taken which establish one candidate over another even in those pre-determined instances. But in the case of the 1980 Republican Presidential Primary, there were a number of unique instances during the setup to the race. George Bush was taking his chance at running for US President and Ronald Reagan’s previously failed attempt in 1976 was rejuvenated for 1980 while Bob Dole was also beginning to make some moves in the progressive arm of the Republican Party. Most noteworthy, however, was Gerald Ford’s constant teasing about entering the primary if only to get back at Ronald Reagan for running against him in 1976. The 1980 Republican Primary is interesting because it would set the United States’ politics for nearly the next twelve years.
Ronald Reagan had achieved his fame initially through Hollywood acting followed by his work with General Electric and becoming Governor of California. He further etched his name into politics with a 1976 run against appointed-President, Gerald Ford. However, the campaign was lackluster particularly due to the guidance of John Sears. While Sears is sometimes credited with bringing Reagan close to snatching the 1976 primary from Ford, it is best to see it, especially through the lens of 1980, that Sears had kept Reagan from running against Jimmy Carter four years earlier.
Sears was a polarizing figure, even during the late 1970s. Conservatives were weary about him, especially after the disaster that resulted from the 1976 campaign. To describe Sears, Craig Shirley wrote, “…Sears was popular among the national media. That was partly because he had no hobbies other than poker, smoking, drinking, and politics – interests that many national political reporters shared. He chain-smoked Viceroy cigarettes and liked a drink, though he seemed to have that under control now. He was also a devout Catholic who would excuse himself from a poker game to attend evening Mass.”1 While he certainly seemed to be a man of contradictions, it may also be safe to assume that the usual-Leftist media loved Sears because he was a toxic person attached to a favored Republican.
Questions about Reagan’s involvement with Sears began even before Reagan announced his decision to run for president. It was the conservative section which was especially unhappy with Sears on the Reagan team as numerous letters were sent into the Reagan camp.2 It was obvious that Sears had brought fear to the campaign in that it could be derailed before it began. Furthermore, Peter Hannaford thought Sears to be “paranoid” while others in Reagan’s sphere in California thought, “Sears had changed. Self-effacement had turned to arrogance, brilliance to egomania, self-mockery to aloofness and shyness to secretiveness.”3 John Sears is notable and is worth spending so much time on because his involvement had decided the early points of the Republican primary.
That isn’t to say Ronald Reagan didn’t have control although it seemed clear that he was running his candidacy like he’d run his presidency in that he’d be a macro-manager, distributing the smaller details among those who worked for him. To know Ronald Reagan was a near impossibility. Even Nancy Reagan wrote, “Although he loves people, he often seems remote, and he doesn’t let anybody get too close. There’s a wall around him. He lets me come closer than anyone else, but there are times when even I feel that barrier.”4 Much of this likely had to do with his life growing up but he was perhaps one of the most friendly and charismatic person someone could know while at the same time being an almost complete stranger.
Let us not ignore the other candidates within the primary as it was hardly the runaway that it now seems today. Reagan had a lot to fear from previous president, Gerald Ford. Ford held a strong grudge against Reagan and would routinely tease entering the Primary since Reagan had run against Ford in 1976. This was truly a valid fear as in April 1978 Ford had led Reagan in a Gallop poll by 2% which increased up to 14% by July of the same year.5 It is to be noted that the previous numbers involved a mixture of political beliefs from adults throughout the nation and while other polls had shown Reagan with even a slight lead over Ford, it was obvious that Reagan was hoping Ford would remain out of the Primary.
Bob Dole, who would later become the Republican nominee in 1996 to run against Bill Clinton, had the same feelings about Reagan as Reagan had with Ford. One of Dole’s only hopes for being the 1980 candidate was if Reagan didn’t run or if Reagan fell flat on his face. While Dole was only getting about 4% of the votes before the primaries really took off, when voters were asked about their second choice, Dole’s name was thrown out and he reached 19% support for second choice.6 It is notable as well that a number of the people on the Reagan staff would’ve likely been on the Dole staff if Reagan hadn’t run.
Congressman Crane was also briefly in the spotlight however by 1978, early in the campaign, it was fairly clear that he was going to have trouble. In spite of being called a “younger Reagan” and being the Chairman of the American Conservative Union, it didn’t look like he was going to go too far. Shirley mentions specifically that this was due in part to his wife’s divisiveness and how it seemed that she had wanted to be the candidate over her husband.7 She had become so destructive to the campaign that staffers were walking away.
Taking another look at a minor candidate, Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, torpedoed his candidacy almost immediately after coming out in favor of the Panama Canal treaties which would send the Panama Canal’s ownership to Panama. Additionally Jack Kemp was easily brushed aside after being labeled an “upstart.”8
George H.W. Bush was the major contender against Reagan. He had a bigger track record than his rivals but he was also very different which offset him against the American people. When asked about the various candidates in one word answers, he described himself as the “elitist candidate.”8 Bush also had the murky background of being involved with the CIA which can make any number of people uneasy.
But at this point we can further focus on John Sears since Sears had a lot of control of the initial push of the Reagan campaign. Nancy Reagan described Sears as, “… urbane and articulate, and he knew as much about politics as anyone I had ever met. I loved having lunch with him because he was bright, knowledgeable, and fascinating to listen to. John was not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and some of Ronnie’s supporters didn’t trust him.” Additionally, Nancy added a conversation she had with her husband, “‘John doesn’t look you in the eye,’ Ronnie once said. ‘He looks you in the tie. Why won’t he look at me?’10 While Nancy did credit Sears with a desire to win, over time, it did seem he put more of an effort for him to win against his competitors than for Reagan to win against his.
By June of 1979, with Sears at the helm, Reagan was lagging. Reagan was hurting with fundraising efforts and his numbers were beginning to drop. Since Sears wanted to ignore Iowa and focus on future states such as New Hampshire, Reagan’s numbers were diving hard in Iowa, a state he should’ve easily taken. Even Connally had outpaced Reagan’s fundraising efforts by roughly $800,000.10 Aside from the money issues, Bush was spending a lot of time in Iowa, canvassing the entire state and studiously raising his numbers there.
Sears, more and more, seemed power-hungry with a severe lack of self-awareness. It almost seems as though he didn’t care how the campaign went as long as he was in the lead and living in style. Due to these reasons, by September of 1979, the Reagan camp was roughly $500,000 in debt and losing approximately $200,000 per month. This was through the guise of Sears who was busy renting a $1700 per hour jet; Doug Bandow, a young aide, wondered out loud why other aides and even he was staying in places like the Waldorf in their own private rooms while the campaign was suffering money problems.12
Lavishing so much attention on Sears’ power in the Reagan campaign so early is important because it was Sears who initially kept Reagan out of Iowa; Iowa is important since its the first step forward for future presidential candidates.
Under the direction of Sears, Reagan was to concentrate much of his efforts on the upcoming states such as New Hampshire. Almost nothing was done on Reagan’s behalf in Iowa, the candidate’s leadership believing that Iowa was already in Reagan’s pocket.
However, with Reagan out of Iowa, this allowed other candidates to take the national stage. Most notable was George Herbert Walker Bush who was part of the established Progressive wing of the Republican Party. Having come out of the CIA and a World War II war hero with an incredible story of survival after being shot down while fighting against the Japanese, and having come straight out of Texas, Bush carried a lot of weight. He carried so much weight that the Reagan campaign shouldn’t have acted so flippantly about Iowa.
Additionally, Iowa was especially important because Jimmy Carter wasn’t debating anyone in Iowa at the time. While he would have to fend off Ted Kennedy, all the national focus at this point was on the Iowa debate. Sears’ influence was clear as Reagan was the only serious contender to abandon the state. This brought forward names such as Connally, Baker, Bush, Anderson, Crane, and Dole.13 And as the months crept forward, Reagan’s strength in the first, very important primary state, was in trouble.
By the time January 1980 had rolled around, it was clear that all of Ford’s teasing to enter the race had come to nothing. Gerald Ford was going to stay at home while the Republican contenders made their way to Iowa. While Reagan was still suffering with Sears’ reckless spending, so much so that even FCM (the Fund for a Conservative Majority) felt compelled to help him with $750,000 in advertisements for New Hampshire and other upcoming states outside of Iowa. As Reagan was looking beyond Iowa, Bush was focused, intently having conducted 54 events in January alone. It was also at this point that Conally fell into even more trouble, having been hit with a number of lawsuits over supposedly not paying Iowan campaign vendors.14 Iowa was beginning suss out the other weak candidate as well with Baker firing his campaign manager.
Baker is an interesting figure because he may have changed the fate of the nation a few years earlier. Ironically, when Gerald Ford was looking for a running mate in 1976, he was looking close at Baker, however, Reagan’s support for Baker ultimately killed Ford’s interest in the man. There were also rumors of Baker’s wife having issues with alcohol, those issues which she seemed to overcome by 1979.15 While Baker appeared weak on Panama, particularly with the conservatives of the party, he hoped to reign in more support with opposing Carter’s SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union.
But as the efforts in Iowa came to a close, Bush’s efforts proved to be worthwhile as he took the first state for himself. Reagan followed up in second and Baker came in a distant third with the others very far behind. It was even at this point that the Carter campaign thought that they may be facing Bush instead of Reagan.16 In spite of the loss, Sears tried flaunting himself in front of Reagan, telling him that he should keep his opinions about abortion to himself to which Reagan replied, “Damn it … I am running for president of the United States! You’re not! Got it!”17 Up to this point Reagan had been mostly apathetic to his campaign, allowing Sears to do as he liked, it was clear that Reagan was still allowing himself to be caged by people like Sears just as he had in 1976.
After the Iowa defeat, Reagan’s competitors felt emboldened. Bush had this feeling in particular. When responding to a comment from a reporter he said, “I wouldn’t say [Reagan]… was overrated, maybe I’ve been underrated.”18 And just as in Iowa, perhaps in part due to the loss in Iowa, Reagan was beginning to trail in New Hampshire.
Still, Reagan had threatened to break out. He claimed the country would see a different candidate that they had thus far however, Nofziger said, criticizing Sears’ leadership, “If you’re going to follow a Rose Garden strategy, you better be sure you have a Rose Garden.”19 Sears’ plan was beginning to fall apart.
While there were other races, the candidates mostly focused on New Hampshire. After Iowa Bush had taken Puerto Rico, Arkansas was a state convention and Reagan had taken Alaska but all the momentum was on Bush’s side. However, one event in February changed everything.
A few days before voting was to open in New Hampshire there was meant to be a debate held in Nashua. The Nashua Telegraph had wanted to host a debate in a school gymnasium between the leading candidates Reagan and Bush, however, there were concerns that this would violate election laws. This concern was brought up by Bob Dole to the FEC and changes had to be made. Therefore, Reagan offered to bankroll the event and invited the other candidates who were in the race to join in the debate. In a rare moment of political savvy, Sears offered to split the cost of the Nashua debate between the Reagan and Bush teams however Bush’s camp declined and Reagan’s stepped up, paying for the entire event.20 Upon Reagan’s invitation, the other candidates were planning to attend excepting Connally who was continuing to campaign in South Carolina.
George Bush, however, states that the other candidates showed up (Anderson, Baker, Dole and Crane) and “insisted” on being included. The issue rose to a head because Bush didn’t want to debate the other candidates; he wanted the focus only between him and Reagan. Bush did admit that his unwillingness to debate the others when writing, “I will be the first to admit I looked like a fool, rigidly playing by the rules. I also was angry.”21 And this was part of Bush’s problem. He was rigid, he was seen as elitist and this was reinforced by his wanting to only debate Reagan in Nashua.
Aside from Bush, the focus was much more on Reagan in Nashua. Reagan, for one of the first times, spoke directly, trying to explain why he had invited the other candidates while on the stage.22 The lights were on, politicians were on the stage and the microphones were hot. Reagan wanted to explain. But the moment because heated after the Nashua Telegraph editor threatened to cut off Reagan’s microphone. After the editor interrupted Reagan, Reagan gave the entire nation a sound bite that brought his campaign to life. When Breen, the Executive Editor of the Nashua Telegraph tried to cut off Reagan’s microphone a second time, Reagan grabbed the microphone and sternly spoke, “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green.”23 The people cheered in the gymnasium and even the other candidates were caught applauding, sans Bush. It was a real moment for Reagan, perhaps the first along his campaign trail and it set the stage for him going forward. This also highlighted Bush as it was said that he “‘froze,’ remaining ‘silent and seated, staring grimly at his notes.'”24 Bush’s campaign wasn’t dead; it’d still be alive for quite a while but the tones shared that night in Nashua showed the personalities of the pair perfectly.
Reagan was different in New Hampshire. Furthermore, a close loss in New Hampshire in 1976 likely still rung in his head. The event in Nashua blanketed the news as Reagan worked and campaigned throughout New Hampshire in the waning days before the vote. Bush, however, was focused on other things. Ironically, Hugh Gregg, who was now working for Bush, was a part of the Reagan campaign in 1976. It was Gregg who had convinced Reagan to return home four years earlier before the New Hampshire vote in ’76; Gregg was now part of the Bush campaign and he also convinced Bush to return home before the ’80 New Hampshire vote. Gregg had repeated the same mistake he made four years prior.25 While Reagan was seen in New Hampshire, Bush was seen at his home doing interviews on television.
Sears’ power was beginning to fade as Reagan took more control. This is an odd note to make since Reagan had decided on Sears during a pivotal moment in November 1979 on a tense night before Iowa even began. Sears was a controversial and power-hungry figure and it was causing divisions in the Reagan campaign long before Iowa even began.
At this time, there was a power split between Deaver and Sears. Sears rallied Lake and Black to his side declaring that Reagan had to choose to either keep Deaver or to lose the three of them. Reagan was shocked. Reagan spoke directly to Lake, “I can’t understand this,” Reagan said to Lake. “Three weeks ago you told me that both John and Mike were indispensable to my campaign, and now you’re telling me that I have to choose between them.”26 As strange as it may sound, Sears accused Deaver of being an ineffective fundraiser yet failed to mention his reckless spending habits. Reagan wanted both sides to compromise but Sears refused, demanding that Reagan make a black-and-white decision. Ultimately Deaver stepped up and said, “No, Governor, you don’t have to make that choice. I’ll resign.”27 Reagan walked with Deaver to the door, not wanting him to leave.
Reagan stormed back into the room where Sears, Lake and Black stood. Reagan boomed, “The biggest man here just left the room. He was willing to accommodate and compromise and you bastards wouldn’t.”28 This event soured Reagan on Sears and according to Lou Cannon, Reagan never spoke well of Sears again. While Sears had obtained control in the moment in ousting Deaver, Sears had made an enemy of the candidate he was working for. Sears wanted control, he wanted power, and even if only for a period of months, he got it.
While Sears may have been happy with the outcome, not everyone was. As Cannon wrote, it was recorded by Lake that, “It was the blackest day of my life. I hated that day. I hated being there.”29 The next day Deaver and Reagan ran into one another as Reagan had an office at Deaver & Hannaford for a few years. Reagan said, “You know, if I knew yesterday what I know today, this would never have happened.” But Deaver provided a precipitous warning in reply, “You’d better be careful because I have been watching your planning and [you] have nobody now to watch your planning. These guys, they do not believe what you believe.”30 It was clear that Sears believed in himself but little more.
Reagan took New Hampshire. And after the victory he summoned Sears, Lake and Black where he summarily fired them in his hotel room with Nancy Reagan and Ronald’s new campaign manager, William J. Casey, in the room.31 They were permitted to resign but they were out of the campaign after New Hampshire.
Reagan, especially after Nashua, was now in control. Sears’ interference was gone and the battle for momentum between Bush and Reagan swung even once again.
South Carolina was essentially left open to Connally and Reagan. Throughout the entire primary the candidates would poke at Reagan’s age and while it can often be reflected that Reagan made light of his age, it apparently annoyed him at those levels just below the surface.32 But Reagan was in control.
Edwin Meese, who became a known figure after Reagan became president, was also involved in the campaign. He noted that Reagan had made a decision to be more forceful after the stinging loss in Iowa. Critical of Sears, Meese added that Sears was repeating the failures of 1976.33 Meese would later note the changes post-Sears.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina, Crane was accusing Reagan of dirty politics as a Reagan supporter in the Manchester Union-Leader attacked Connally and his fidelity. Connally, however, directly accused Reagan of playing dirty politics; it was the first time anyone had ever made such an accusation against Reagan.34 Connally in these moments was desperate. He was outspoken and threw everything at the proverbial wall that was possible; talking about Reagan’s “inflammatory” comments about the Shah of Iran, complaining about the preference of network time for Reagan over Connally, about Reagan’s run against Ford and even a race Reagan was in thirty years prior in 1950.35
Reagan’s campaign became different. Meese sums it up nicely when writing, “The fact of the matter was that, after breaking out of the stranglehold applied by Sears, Reagan exhibited amazing vote-getting power. In a span of three weeks, he contested nine primary elections and won seven. After winning New Hampshire, he achieved a three-way standoff with Bush and Anderson in liberal Massachusetts and Vermont (March 4), rolled over Conally in South Carolina (March 8), and swamped all his opponents in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama (March 11).”36 Reagan also picked up power from former candidates, for after South Carolina, Connally dropped out, quickly endorsing Reagan.
Illinois was next on the chopping block. It was an important state for Bush because Reagan had full momentum and only his own faltering would slow him down. Even Bush saw Illinois as a “watershed” moment.37 But after seeing the polls in the morning of the vote, the Washington Post reported, “…Don Pottin, Reagan’s Midwestern chairman, said flatly, ‘I think Bush is dead.'”38 However, it would seem Bush had a little more optimism.
Bush wrote as late as 28 April about his hopes to take the primaries. Bush wrote, “The victory in the Pennsylvania Primary gave my campaign a terrific boost and caused the political ‘experts’ to rethink their weeks-old conclusion that Governor Reagan is a shoo-in for the Republican nomination. I’m in this fight through the final ballot of the national convention, and I am optimistic of winning. Poll after poll shows that the American people do not want a choice this November between Reagan and President Carter.”39 And Bush would remain in the race until the last ballot. As he noted, while Bush had upset Reagan in Michigan, on the same day, Reagan took Nebraska which gave him enough votes to secure the nomination. Bush soon conceded and Reagan became the party’s primary winner.
As the campaign came to an end Reagan was able to look forward to his race against Carter which he would also ultimately win with fiery debates, Iran and October surprises. Bush, meanwhile, wrote in late May 1980, “I can’t think toward ‘84… I have got to go back to work for a living. But, I’m lucky to be able to take the time, to spend money to come out right personally, to do my best. And, that is about where we stand on the 22nd, having come close, close, close to where I wanted to get, not in terms of total delegates, but in finishing with style…”40 This seems like a roundabout way of trying to secure his appearance since Bush stayed in so long in spite of Reagan’s assured nomination.
Often authors have cited Nashua as the turning point of the Reagan campaign; it’s often noted as the moment that changed everything. While the powerful event at Nashua did provide Reagan with a soundbite just days before the vote, Nashua itself wasn’t the moment that changed the course of the Reagan campaign. Instead, it seemed the turning point was Reagan’s distrust and disgust of Sears, particularly after Iowa. After the events of November 1979, upon seeing the disastrous effects in Iowa, speaking down to Sears over the abortion issue and lastly, having his own moment on stage in Nashua and putting more of himself and his personality into the campaign, those changes gave Reagan a strength he hadn’t assumed in the Republican Primaries. Once Reagan was able to win his way in New Hampshire, there was a moment of clarity that he didn’t need people like Sears. And those like Lake and Black who stood by Sears’ side, those who blind-sided Reagan one November night and hid their true intentions until the moment was right, Reagan had decided he didn’t need such people within his campaign. He took control after Iowa and tossed aside those who couldn’t even look him in the eye. Once he made that move, Reagan coasted toward the Presidential campaign.
1 Shirley, Craig. Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. 24
2 ibid. 23
3 ibid. 38
4 Cannon, Lou. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power 80
5 ibid. 444
6 Shirley, Craig. Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. 30
7 ibid. 29
8 ibid. 22
9 ibid. 34
10 Reagan, Nancy. My Turn. 152
11 Shirley, Craig. Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. 31
12 ibid. 38
13 Cannon, Lou. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power 456
14 Shirley, Craig. Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. 56
15 ibid. 35
16 ibid. 59
18 ibid. 61
19 Cannon, Lou. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power 458
20 ibid. 460
21 Bush, George. All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings. 288
22 Shalhoup, Dean. “A Recollection: The Historic 1980 Nashua Debate.”
23 “Reagan’s Nashua Moment.”
24 Shalhoup, Dean. “A Recollection: The Historic 1980 Nashua Debate.”
25 Cannon, Lou. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power 463
26 ibid. 448
27 ibid. 449
28 ibid. 449
29 ibid. 47
30 ibid. 47
31 ibid. 463
32 Shirley, Craig. Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. 23
33 Meese, Edwin. With Reagan: The Inside Story 7
34 Shirley, Craig. Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. 29
35 ibid. 48
36 Meese, Edwin. With Reagan: The Inside Story. 39-40
37 Shalhoup, Dean. “A Recollection: The Historic 1980 Nashua Debate.”
39 Bush, George. All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings. 294-5
40 ibid. 296-7
Bush, George. All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings. Scribner, 2014.
Cannon, Lou. Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power. PublicAffairs, 2005.
Meese, Edwin. With Reagan: The Inside Story. Regnery Gateway, 1992.
Reagan, Nancy. My Turn. 1989.
“Reagan’s Nashua Moment.” YouTube: Reagan’s Nashua Moment, YouTube, 22 Feb. 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OO2_49TycdE. Accessed 3 Nov. 2021.
Shalhoup, Dean. “A Recollection: The Historic 1980 Nashua Debate.” Nashuatelegraph.com, 3 Dec. 2018, https://www.nashuatelegraph.com/news/local-news/2018/12/03/a-recollection-the-historic-1980-nashua-debate/.
Shirley, Craig. Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. ISI Books, 2010.