Ronald Reagan’s Electoral Career

Ronald Reagan’s electoral career can be divided into five stages: preparation, his campaigns for governor of California, running for the Republican nomination for President, general election campaigns for President, and the surrogate campaign for George H.W. Bush as his successor in 1988. Throughout his campaigns, Reagan consistently promoted a set of philosophical beliefs and issue positions, including support for limited government, federalism, strict constitutional construction, low taxes, reduced domestic spending, a strong defense, and an assertive anticommunist foreign policy.

  1. Campaigning without running.Years before running for office himself, Reagan gradually entered the political arena by speaking on behalf of other candidates. In 1962, he officially changed his voter registration from Democrat to Republican while campaigning for Richard Nixon for Governor of California. In the most important example, Reagan took to the campaign trail on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s presidential run in 1964, serving as the co-chairman of California Citizens for Goldwater.

In late October, his nationally televised address — entitled “A Time for Choosing,” later called by his supporters simply “The Speech” — was a pivotal moment, staking Reagan out as the conservative leader of the future. “The Speech” was directly responsible for convincing a group of powerful California businessmen, including Henry Salvatori, Cy Rubel, and Holmes Tuttle, to approach Reagan running for Governor of California in 1966.

  1. The gubernatorial races.On January 4, 1966, Reagan announced his candidacy for governor of California against two-term incumbent Democrat Pat Brown. He was widely considered the underdog against both Brown and liberal Republican primary opponent George Christopher, the former Mayor of San Francisco. In the primary election, Reagan trounced Christopher by over 700,000 votes (65 percent to 31 percent).

In the general election against Brown, Reagan emphasized law and order, wasteful government, welfare, over-taxation, and student disturbances at the University of California. Behind in the polls until mid-October, Reagan pulled ahead to win by 58 percent to 42 percent, a margin of nearly one million votes.

In his reelection run in 1970, Reagan was re-nominated without opposition. He led Democrat Jesse Unruh, California Assembly Speaker, from the beginning and never relinquished his advantage. In the end, he defeated Unruh by a 53 percent to 45 percent margin. While closer than in 1966, Reagan’s 500,000-vote victory was still impressive in a state where Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a 3-2 margin.

  1. 3. The Republican presidential nomination.As soon as he won the governorship in 1966, Reagan became the object of presidential speculation. By 1968, Reagan was ade facto candidate for the presidency. However, it would take him three tries over 12 years to attain the Republican presidential nomination.

Attempt #1 (1968): In his first attempt, Reagan initially ran only as a favorite son, winning the California primary and securing the state’s large bloc of delegates. He received 10 percent or more of the vote in an additional three primaries without running an active campaign (21 percent in Nebraska, 20 percent in Oregon, and 10 percent in Wisconsin). At the end of the primary season, Reagan actually had accumulated more primary votes than any other Republican, leading Richard Nixon by nearly 17,000, though this advantage was due to his uncontested victory in California.

Coming into the national convention, Richard Nixon led but did not have the nomination sewn up. Not until the convention opened did Reagan announce he was a full-fledged candidate. His chief immediate objective was to prevent Nixon from gaining a majority of delegates on the first ballot. It was Reagan’s hope — and there was some reason for him to be hopeful — that many delegates who backed Nixon on the first ballot out of obligation would subsequently shift to him out of philosophical conviction.

It is important to note for a moment the way in which the presidential nominating system of 1968, the last election before the McGovern-Fraser reforms, was radically different from the modern system. In 1968, there were presidential preference primaries in only 15 states; most delegates were selected by caucus-convention procedures in the states, state and local party leaders were still major players in the system, and the national convention was still the decisive venue.

Only the intervention of Strom Thurmond, John Tower, and other southern conservatives, as well as Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, on behalf of Nixon, kept crucial southern delegations from tilting to Reagan. On the first ballot, Nixon assembled a majority — with only 25 votes to spare. Reagan then released his delegates and urged the convention to support Nixon unanimously.

Attempt #2 (1976): As Reagan’s second and last gubernatorial term drew to a close, he aimed for another run at the presidency in 1976, which should have been an open year with no incumbent. However, Watergate and Nixon’s resignation changed the equation. Suddenly Gerald Ford was president, with both the constitutional right and the intention to run again. A run by Reagan thus faced steeper odds. Nevertheless, Reagan actually led Ford in polls of Republican voters in the fall of 1975.

The two candidates were well matched, and both seemed to hold the affection of most Republicans. Reagan criticized the Nixon-Ford policy of “détente” with the Soviet Union, the Panama Canal Treaties being negotiated by Ford, and the continuing centralization of power in Washington. Ford attacked Reagan for being “too extreme” and used the powers of his incumbency to the fullest extent. Reagan and Ford traded several key primaries, including New Hampshire and Florida (won narrowly by Ford), North Carolina, Indiana, and Texas (Reagan), Oregon (Ford), California (Reagan), and Ohio (Ford). Altogether, Ford won 16 of 27 preference primaries and 53 percent of the total primary vote. In the caucus states, there was “hand-to-hand combat” for every delegate. Reagan ultimately won 56 percent of the caucus state delegates.

At the opening of the Republican national convention, neither candidate yet had a majority of delegates. In a bid to attract moderate support, Reagan announced that if nominated he would ask liberal Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania to serve as his running mate. The ploy seemed to backfire, though, as conservatives were irritated and liberals remained unassuaged. Once again, the nomination slipped away from Reagan, as Ford won on the first ballot by a slim 117-vote margin. It was a narrow loss indeed, traceable to a 1,317-vote defeat in New Hampshire at the beginning and the desertion of some Mississippi delegates under presidential cajoling at the end. As a matter of historical interest, at no major party nominating convention since then has the outcome been in serious doubt when it was gaveled to order.

Attempt #3 (1980): Reagan then spent the next four years running for the 1980 nomination. Shortly after the 1976 convention defeat, he placed $1 million in leftover campaign funds into a new political action committee, Citizens for the Republic. He also wrote regular syndicated columns and recorded a weekly five-minute radio commentary. When the race began in earnest, Reagan faced a field of five opponents, including a former congressman, ambassador, and C.I.A. Director George H.W. Bush, Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, former Texas Governor John Connally, and Illinois Congressmen John Anderson and Phil Crane.

Though he was the front-runner in national polls, many pundits and party leaders believed Reagan was too old and was past his prime. In this view, Reagan had lost his last real chance in 1976, and time had passed him by. When Bush won the Iowa caucuses, the first real contest of the nominating season, these views gained in strength.

The New Hampshire primary became a make-or-break event for the Reagan campaign. Reagan fired his campaign manager, John Sears, on a primary day, and replaced him with William Casey, who was later appointed by Reagan as the Director of Central Intelligence. A critical moment came during a debate in New Hampshire when Reagan, saying, “I am paying for this microphone,” insisted on the inclusion of the entire field of Republican contenders. Reagan won New Hampshire by more than two to one and never looked back.

He went on to win a total of 29 of 34 primaries and 61 percent of the total primary vote. His nearest competitor, George Bush, won five primaries and 23 percent of the vote. John Anderson, who subsequently bolted the Republican Party to run as an independent in November 1980, won 12 percent of the vote. At the successful conclusion of his 12-year quest, Reagan was nominated by the Republican Party for the presidency of the United States on July 14, 1980.

  1. General election campaigns.Coming out of the Republican National Convention, Reagan held a lead over incumbent Jimmy Carter, who was harmed by the seemingly interminable Iranian hostage crisis, an economy in crisis, and Soviet gains across the world, culminating in the December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The race tightened by Labor Day and remained close until a late tide swept Reagan to an impressive victory.

Perhaps the key moment of the race came in the sole Reagan-Carter debate, held on October 28, when Reagan asked Americans “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

When the votes were counted, Reagan had won 51 percent of the vote, 44 states, and 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 41 percent, 6 states (plus D.C.), and 49 electoral votes. Anderson’s independent campaign also garnered 7 percent of the vote. Reagan’s coattails brought in a net Republican gain of 33 House seats and 12 Senate seats, toppling such liberal stalwarts as George McGovern, Birch Bayh, Frank Church, and John Culver and putting Republicans in control of the Senate for the first time since they were ousted in the election of 1954.

Four years later, Reagan was re-nominated without serious opposition. His Democratic opponent was former Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale, a Minnesota liberal who carried the additional baggage of participation in the Carter Administration. Reagan ran on a simple theme, that America under his stewardship had returned from the brink of disaster. The economy was much improved, the national defense had been rebuilt, national morale was reinvigorated, and “not one inch of territory has been lost to the communists.”

Mondale ran by promising to raise taxes, cut back on the defense buildup, and accommodate Moscow. Reagan won a victory of historic proportions, taking 49 states and 525 electoral votes with 59 percent of the vote. No presidential winner in the twentieth century, including Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, had won as large an electoral vote total. Mondale was held in one state — his own Minnesota, where he prevailed by a mere 2,000 votes — and the District of Columbia. However, Reagan’s congressional coattails were more modest than in 1980, as Republicans gained 14 House seats and lost 2 Senate seats.

  1. The campaign for a successor.The last major electoral effort by Ronald Reagan came in 1988 when Reagan campaigned to ensure the election victory of Vice President George H.W. Bush as his successor. Bush himself ran on a theme of continuity. To a boisterous reception, Reagan addressed the 1988 Republican National Convention on Bush’s behalf. Responding to claims by Democrats that it was time for a change, Reagan argued: “We are the change.” Bush rode Reagan’s popularity and his issues — low taxes, strong defense — into the White House, defeating Democrat Michael Dukakis with 53 percent of the vote and 426 electoral votes. Though the president was not on the ballot, prominent political scientist Gerald Pomper referred to the result as “Reagan’s valedictory.”


1966 California Republican Primary
Reagan 1,417,623 64.7%
Christopher 675,683 30.8%


1966 California General Election
Reagan 3,742,913 57.6%
Brown 2,749,174 42.1%


1968 Republican National Convention First Ballot
Nixon 692
Rockefeller 277
Reagan 182


1970 California General Election
Reagan 3,439,174 52.8%
Unruh 2,938,607 45.1%


1976 Key Republican Presidential Primaries

New Hampshire: Ford 49.4%, Reagan 48.0%

Florida: Ford 52.8%, Reagan 47.2%

North Carolina: Reagan 52.4%, Ford 45.9%

Indiana: Reagan 51.3%, Ford 48.7%

Oregon: Ford 50.3%, Reagan 45.8%

California: Reagan 65.5%, Ford 34.5%

Ohio: Ford 55.2%, Reagan 44.8%

1976 Total Republican Primary Vote
Ford 5,529,899 16 wins 53.3%
Reagan 4,758,325 11 wins 45.9%


1976 Republican National Convention First Ballot
Ford 1,187
Reagan 1,070

1980 Key Republican Presidential Primaries

New Hampshire: Reagan 49.6%, Bush 22.7%

South Carolina: Reagan 54.7%, Connally 29.6%

Illinois: Reagan 48.4%, Anderson 36.7%

Wisconsin: Reagan 40.2%, Bush 30.4%

Pennsylvania: Bush 50.5%, Reagan 42.5%

Texas: Reagan 51.0%, Bush 47.4%

Michigan: Bush 57.5%, Reagan 31.8%

Oregon: Reagan 54.0%, Bush 34.6%

1980 Total Republican Primary Vote
Reagan 7,709,793 60.8% 29 wins
Bush 2,958,093 23.3% 5 wins
Anderson 1,572,174 12.4% 0 wins
1980 Presidential General Election
pop. votes % states electoral votes
Reagan 43,904,153 50.7 44 489
Carter 35,483,883 41.0 7 49
Anderson 5,720,060 6.6 0 0


1984 Presidential General Election
pop. votes % states electoral votes
Reagan 54,445,075 58.8 49 525
Mondale 37,577,185 40.6 2 13


1988 Presidential General Election
pop. votes % states electoral votes
Bush 48,886,097 53.4 40 426
Dukakis 41,809,074 45.6 11 111