This essay was originally published as the cover story in the October 13, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here
With one month to go in the longest presidential campaign in American history, the candidates are acting as if they are just getting started. They are putting on a burst of speed, going more places, giving more speeches, campaigning as if their lives depended on it—and indeed their political lives do. In these last critical weeks, Carter and Reagan are trying to reach the winning number of 270 electoral votes by zeroing in on the same glittering jackpot—the nation’s eight most populous states, with a combined total of 228 electoral votes: California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, Ohio, Michigan and Florida. In a tightly contested race with a dissatisfied electorate and a large undecided bloc showing up in some polls, a small shift in any state could determine the outcome. The candidates cannot afford to take any chances; they are zealously going after every vote they can find in the crucial eight.
A tantalizing development of the 1980 presidential race is that while the national polls, on which most public attention is focused, give Reagan a slim lead in the popular vote, the former California Governor seems to be well ahead in the state-by-state tally of electoral votes that determines who wins the White House. A TIME survey shows that Reagan now has a firm lead in states with 93 electoral votes, and that states with 222 more votes are leaning his way. In contrast, Carter is safely ahead in states with only 54 votes and has an edge in those with just 93 more.
Reagan starts with a broad sweep of states in the West, plus a good chance of cracking Carter’s base in the South. With that advantage, winning only three or four of the jackpot states could push him over the top. Five of the eight are now leaning to Reagan, and two more are too close to call either way.
In 1976, Carter won every Southeastern state except Virginia. By taking Texas and splitting the industrial North with Jerry Ford, he was narrowly the victor. But this year, he has not been able to make up for the erosion at home by winning new strongholds in the North. He has groups of faithful supporters—teachers, public employees, blacks and Hispanics —but he has at least partly lost the backing of other traditional members of the Democratic coalition: white ethnics and Jews. He cannot win without getting their votes in substantial numbers, particularly in the eight battleground states. As of today, only one—New York—is leaning his way. But Carter certainly cannot be ruled out. The undecided vote appears to be so large that the President could still end up winning a number of the states—and the election.
Reagan is not making Carter’s job any easier. While the Republican still clings to his conservative views on key issues, he was taking no extreme positions last week. In fact, as he crisscrossed the industrial North, campaigning in Democratic blue-collar areas, he almost seemed to have changed parties. The old-style scourge of the liberals was barely recognizable. At a noon rally in downtown Paterson, N.J., Reagan once again attacked Carter for putting people out of work. “While Mr. Carter has the nomination of the Democratic Party in his hands, I don’t think he has the values of the millions of hard-working Democrats in his heart. Al Smith used to say: ‘Let’s look at the record.’ Well, I submit that my record is one that Democrats, Republicans and Independents can support.”
At a construction site in Manhattan, where Reagan called for building a controversial roadway that will provide more jobs, he reminded his hard-hat audience of his lifelong union membership. “And I was six times union president.” Then with a jaunty tilt of his head as if the thought had just occurred to him, he added: “By golly, I think I’m the first person who could say that who has run for President.”
By week’s end Reagan had jettisoned some earlier unpopular positions, notably his opposition to federal loan guarantees to New York City. He attributed his change of heart to New York City Mayor Edward Koch: “Ever since Koch started to straighten things out, I’ve been in favor of those guarantees.”
While Reagan was attempting to tear apart the Democratic coalition, the President was desperately trying to cement it. Carter received a tumultuous welcome at the convention of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York. In an effort to win back the wavering Jewish vote, he made one of his strongest pledges on Israel. If the United Nations expels Israel, declared the President, the U.S. would pull out of the organization. He then went on in fervid defense of ERA, dear to the heart of the women union members and to other Americans disturbed by the opposition to the amendment in the G.O.P. platform.
In Detroit, Carter delivered a commercial for the new American small cars designed to lift the industry out of the doldrums: “Today, as President, I urge American consumers to go into the showrooms and test-drive these new American cars. There’s not a better-built, safer, more durable or more efficient car today.”
Carter stuck to the highroad of the issues during the week, avoiding the kind of scathing personal attack that has backfired against him. But he still feels that his best campaign weapon is fear of Reagan, and he plans to exploit the issue. His new television ads feature a man-in-the-street declaring that Reagan “would have got us into a war by now.”
Campaigning in Detroit for Carter, Coretta King called Reagan the candidate of white “exclusiveness.” If he is elected, she charged, the “Klan will be quite comfortable” with his Administration. But the target of these attacks seemed to take them in stride. In Manhattan, Reagan remarked with a smile: “I’ve been very busy, as you know, starting nuclear wars and doing away with Social Security and all those things—that is, if you listen to what the other fellas are saying.”
As the President made the rounds of the key states, he acted a bit like Santa Claus distributing gifts. During a swing to Niagara Falls, he announced federal grants to remove dangerous nuclear waste in upstate New York and to relocate the anxious residents of the Love Canal. Carter also revealed a new program to aid the ailing steel industry. Ahead of schedule, he announced the Administration plans to award $150 million in urban-development grants to economically depressed cities; there will be $200 million from the Transportation Department for buses, $300 million for farmers who have suffered damage in the drought.
Carter, however, may need all the federal largesse at his disposal, since he is lagging far behind his opponent in raising campaign funds. While each major candidate receives $29.4 million in federal funds, there are numerous ways that more money can be lawfully raised. The Republican National Committee has collected some $25 million that can be used to register citizens and get out the vote, to send direct mail appeals and to pay almost all organizational costs on the state level. In contrast, the Democrats have drummed up a paltry $3.5 million. Said a Carter aide in a medley of metaphors: “We’re operating in the teeth of an inadequate purse.”
Still, the Democrats are not so strapped for funds that they could not strike an unusual deal with Ted Kennedy. Deputy Campaign Manager Hamilton Jordan signed a contract to provide Kennedy with $500,000 raised at a series of galas that Carter and the Senator will attend. In return for this assistance in paying off his $1.7 million in campaign debts, Kennedy has pledged to barnstorm for the President.
A key factor in most of the critical big states, largely beyond the control of either Carter or Reagan, is the independent candidacy of John Anderson. The Illinois Congressman appears to be slipping in the polls, as third-party candidates generally do; the question is where his votes are going. So far, they seem to have gone mainly to Reagan, probably because Anderson has moved leftward on many issues. But the Congressman’s staunchest support is thought to come from liberals deserting Carter. Thus, the Republicans, though believing that Anderson may be hurting them in some areas, are generally rooting for him to stay in the race while the Democrats are trying to push him out. Says a Carter aide: “Even in the single digits, Anderson can hurt us badly in New York and Illinois.” Dispatches in depth from the eight battleground states, in order of their electoral vote size:
CALIFORNIA. Sound and fury signifying —how much? That is what the Republicans are wondering about the $2.6 million budgeted by the Democrats to accomplish what many consider the impossible: defeating Reagan in his home state. Says Les Francis, Carter’s national field director: “We’re not spending that kind of money on a whim. The state is winnable.” Scoffs Dean Burch, George Bush’s top aide: “I think Carter is smoking dope on California.” If Reagan should lose California, it would signal a nationwide collapse. Without his home state, Reagan’s candidacy is almost unthinkable: it is California or bust. A September survey by Independent Pollster Mervin Field gave him a comfortable lead over Carter of 39% to 29%, with Anderson at 18%.
Still the Democrats are buoyed by the fact that they have a 57% to 34% edge in registration, and that Carter has reduced Reagan’s lead by 20 points since last summer. Moreover, California is a “media state,” where late and wide shifts of opinion among voters are possible. Four years ago Carter lost to Jerry Ford by a scant 1.7% of the vote. The Democrats think he would have won if the turnout had been heavier in traditional Democratic areas, so they plan to allot a big chunk of their funds to sign up more voters. They are also relying on a new coalition of unions, teachers and other public employees, black and Hispanic groups that defeated Howard Jarvis’ Proposition 9, which would have cut state income taxes. Says Roland Vincent, deputy director of the Carter state campaign: “These groups are as concerned about Reagan as they were about Proposition 9.”
But the Democrats recognize the obstacles that lie in their way. Anderson’s hard-core support is staunchly liberal and thus draws from Carter. So far at any rate, it has scarcely budged. Says a top Anderson fund raiser in Los Angeles: “We’d rather throw our vote away than give it to Carter.” Ted Kennedy’s supporters are lukewarm about working for Carter. Says one, emotionally: “We can’t find it in our hearts to campaign for this guy. Our memories aren’t that short.” Nor is Jerry Brown, the enigmatic Democratic Governor, embracing Carter. Confides a former aide: “Jerry’s been doing a lot of soul searching. He still thinks Carter has a limited, linear mind and that he won’t be able to cope with most of the problems of the next four years. Jerry has his own credibility to worry about.” Observes Pollster Field: “Reagan is not as strong in California as everybody thinks he is. But he’s strong enough to beat Carter.”
NEW YORK. If straphangers in Gotham would raise their eyes from their newspapers, they would notice a prominent ad for President Carter. The smiling President is signing a bill to give federal aid to the city in 1978. Alongside is a quote from Reagan: “I have included in my morning and evening prayers every day, the prayer that the Federal Government not bail out New York City.” Urges the ad: “Reelect President Carter, a friend of America’s cities.”
New York may just heed that advice, though the contest is close. Winning the state with the second most electoral votes is essential for Carter, since California, the state with the most, still seems to lie beyond his reach. The President frankly told the Business and Labor Committee for Carter, “It is impossible to figure out how to win re-election without New York.”
As new polls have come out, his supporters have begun to breathe a little more easily. Carter seems to be moving ahead of Reagan, largely at the expense of Anderson, who had been getting as much as 18% in the polls but who now has begun slipping—a sign that disenchanted Democrats may be coming home. Admits a top G.O.P. strategist: “We feel that we don’t have a lot of control in this state. As John goes, so go we.” Democrats, however, worry that Anderson could swing New York to Reagan if he took as little as 10% of the state’s vote.
However much the President says he loves New York, he will never be a beloved figure in the Empire State. Erie County Democratic Leader Joe Crangle puts it bluntly: “The best thing that Carter has working for him is the Democratic line on the ballot. That will bring out the party’s traditional support, and that’s a big plus.” But Crangle admits that a heavy vote may not emerge because of widespread indifference to Carter. Thus the Democrats are embarking on a registration drive to add to their 3-to-2 superiority over Republicans.
The bloc that is most hotly contested is the Jewish vote, which provides roughly 20% of the turnout in presidential contests. In 1976 Carter won about 75% of the Jewish vote; some polls now give him around 30%, Reagan somewhat less, with a large group still undecided. “I’ve never seen so little support among Jewish voters for a Democratic presidential candidate,” says Rita Hauser, a top Reagan campaign official in New York. “That’s unprecedented.” It also is unlikely to persist until Election Day; the Democrats are confident that enough defectors will return to the fold to give the victory to Carter. By any calculation, the Jewish vote appears to hold the key to the outcome.
PENNSYLVANIA. The state with the third largest number of electoral votes is easing toward Reagan. Though Carter won Pennsylvania in 1976, by a 123,073-vote margin, and Democrats outnumber Republicans by 733,000, the Pennsylvania Poll taken last week puts the Californian ahead of the President 40% to 33%, with 16% for Anderson.
The survey indicates that Reagan is benefiting from the economic issue, which now overshadows international concerns in voters’ minds. Gaining confidence, state Republicans seem mainly worried that Carter will attempt some last-minute move overseas to rescue his campaign. Thus they are setting aside much of their warchest and buying up television time in advance in order to respond to an “October surprise” by the President.
Reagan is not only picking up heavy support in the bedroom communities around Philadelphia, he is cutting into the Democratic blue-collar vote more clearly than in other states. In staunchly Democratic Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Poll gives Carter a lead of only 6%, nowhere near enough to overcome Reagan’s advantage in the rest of the state. (In 1976 Carter had a lead of more than 2 to 1 in the city.) To try to widen the margin, Democratic Mayor William Green is working strenuously for Carter, and last week Vice President Walter Mondale came to town to celebrate the arrival of the aircraft carrier Saratoga in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to begin a $500 million overhaul that will create an estimated 5,000 jobs.
Carter faces additional trouble in the industrial northeast of the state, where unemployment has reached 13% and a large Slavic population is especially receptive to Reagan’s antiabortion stand. “People are mad up there,” admits Dan Horgan, Carter’s state coordinator. “I don’t know the answer to that problem.” Campaigning in Wilkes-Barre last week, Reagan assailed the President for failing to keep his pledge to make coal the nation’s No. 1 energy source. Said Reagan: “Mr. Carter has promised dramatically to increase coal production, yet some 22,000 miners are out of work, and almost one-eighth of our coal capacity lies idle.”
In rebuttal, labor leaders are barnstorming the state recalling old Reagan quotes, e.g.: “We were told that 17 million Americans went to bed hungry every night. Well, that is probably true. They were all on a diet.” They also are reminding voters of Reagan’s past opposition to the minimum wage and food stamps for strikers. But the Pennsylvania Poll shows union-oriented voters preferring Carter to Reagan by only 43% to 28% —and that may not be enough to keep the state in the President’s column on Nov. 4.
ILLINOIS. No matter how big a vote the Republican candidate accumulated downstate, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley could sometimes pull enough out of Cook County to top it—never mind how. But Daley is gone, his once impregnable machine is in disrepair, and it is headed by a mayor who has been openly hostile to Jimmy Carter. “Calamity Jane” Byrne supported Kennedy in the primary, which Carter won, and still regards the Georgian as a one-term President.
The President and the mayor have kissed, but they have not exactly made up. The White House has been the suitor, inviting her to Washington twice and swamping Chicago with all kinds of federal favors, including $91 million in transportation funds and $13 million in housing grants. The Administration even turned over a military facility at Chicago-O’Hare airport to the city, and last week the Justice Department issued a mild directive on school desegregation, although HEW had earlier rejected a stronger plan proposed by the city. These concessions have improved Carter’s popularity, but his best hope may lie with the late mayor’s son, Richard M. Daley, who is running for state’s attorney of Cook County and is expected to bring out a big vote. Says Louis Masotti, a political scientist at Northwestern University: “This may be one of the first elections in Chicago history where the President will ride to victory on the coattails of a local candidate.”
The President is counting heavily on blacks, but the size of the turnout is questionable. To spur the vote, Carter’s camp is opening new offices in the black wards and plans to run television spots featuring Andrew Young and other prominent blacks praising the President.
The Democrats concede the more conservative suburbs to the Republicans, although they intend to put up a stiff fight for a larger share of the vote than they won in 1976. An increasing number of blue-collar workers, Jews and blacks have been moving to the neighborhoods surrounding Chicago while keeping their Democratic registration.
The other major battlefield is downstate among rural conservative voters, who gave Carter a higher tally in 1976 than a Democrat usually gets. Like other conservatives, they are now leaning to Reagan. In Illinois this year, with no Daley at the helm in Cook County, anything can happen. Says Illinois State Representative Donald Totten, who heads the Reagan campaign in four Midwestern states: “There’s a lot of switching around going on out there.”
TEXAS. When Carter defeated Ford by 129,000 votes out of 4 million cast in the state, he was supported by a united Democratic Party under the leadership of Governor Dolph Briscoe. But Briscoe is now out of office and unwilling to lift a finger for Carter. Along with many other Democrats, he is angry at the President’s energy policies, especially the windfall-profits tax on the oil industry. “If I get out and campaign,” explains Briscoe, “I might just campaign for myself. When I campaigned for someone else four years ago, the results didn’t turn out so well.”
Democrats like former Governors Preston Smith and Allan Shivers are actively supporting Reagan; and last week they were joined by still another defector, Watergate Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who said he preferred a “competent extremist” in the White House to an “incompetent moderate”—not that he thought Reagan was extreme any longer.
Meantime, the Republicans occupy the statehouse and are out for blood. Contentious Governor William Clements is committing his political prestige to beating Carter in Texas and thus speeding up the” trend to a two-party state. With more than-$3 million at their disposal, the Republicans are outspending the Democrats 2 to 1. Complains Carter’s Texas campaign director, Robert Beckel: “When you’ve got that kind of money, you could organize Argentina. I kind of feel like a speedboat up against the Nimitz.”
But the nation’s third most populous state is still heavily Democratic, and the minority vote, traditionally solid for the Democrats, has been growing. The black vote is now 12% of the total, and Hispanic registration has nearly doubled in four years, to 18%. The blacks remain pro-Carter, but the Democrats cannot take the Hispanics for granted; many admire Reagan’s tall-in-the-saddle individualism. The Republicans are trying just as hard as the Democrats to win the Hispanic vote, figuring that as much as 30% of the bloc would assure them victory in Texas. Still, Ruben Bonilla, president of the pro-Carter League of United Latin-American Citizens, cautions that Reagan is too conservative for most Hispanics. “If we wanted an actor,” he quips, “we would vote for Ricardo Montalban.”
Reagan will probably capture much more of the rural Texas vote than Ford did, whittling down the Carter total. In booming Houston and Dallas, increasingly the home of transplanted Yankees with a moderate Republican outlook, Vice-Presidential Candidate George Bush is expected to help. If Texas is a must for Reagan, it could be the Alamo for Carter. Since Texas was admitted to the Union in 1848, no Democrat has been elected President without carrying the Lone Star State.
OHIO. Of all the states in the Union, Ohio may be the most representative—a balance of farms, small towns and big cities. It is also fairly evenly divided politically. Cleveland produces a large Democratic vote; the Republicans predominate downstate. Understandably, presidential elections are often cliffhangers. Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey by 7,107 votes in 1948; Carter squeezed by Ford with 11,116 votes in 1976.
A Market Opinion Research poll, taken by Robert Teeter in September, shows Reagan defeating Carter 41% to 31%; but Jim Wray, state G.O.P. campaign coordinator, is not comfortable with that lead: “It’s still a horse race.” The Carterites agree. “Everyone is uneasy,” says Martin J. Hughes, international vice president of the Communications Workers of America. The aging steel mills that have been shut down in Youngstown and the state unemployment rate, which reached more than 10% last summer, have shaken the blue-collar workers’ allegiance to the Democratic Party. “The state is still Reagan’s to lose,” admits Tim Hagan, Democratic chairman of Cuyahoga County.
The Democrats remain in disarray after the Carter-Kennedy donnybrook. Hagan, who supported Kennedy’s losing bid in the primary, is trying to heal the wounds. “Our differences with Carter are inconsequential compared to our differences with Reagan,” he insists. Governor James Rhodes is stumping the state for Reagan in his usual slam-bang style, plunking down his billfold on the table and telling blue-collar audiences: “That’s the issue—who puts something in there rather than who takes it out.”
As the battle quickens, Reagan is visiting the state for the third time this week; Carter last week made his third appearance in the past month; and Cabinet heads have been shuttling in and out as if they were on commuter planes. Carter is not expected to do as well in the Bible Belt in the southern part of Ohio as he did in 1976. Reagan is increasingly popular with evangelical fundamentalists.
The Ohio outcome may boil down to the blue-collar vote, which Reagan is assiduously wooing in areas like Parma and Maple Heights around Cleveland. “I like Reagan,” many workers seem to be saying. “But can I trust Reagan and the Republican Party with my economic future?” How Ohio goes largely depends on the answer to that question.
MICHIGAN. In August, Michigan’s Market Opinion Research poll showed Reagan with 36% of the vote, Carter with 32%, Anderson with 17%, and 17% undecided. In late September the same survey indicated that Reagan had 29%, Carter 27%, Anderson still had 17%, but the undecided had jumped to 27%, a shift that demonstrates how little Michigan voters care for the candidates. Indeed, private G.O.P. polls put the undecided vote as high as 40%. The man who wins will be the least objectionable in a state that prefers competent moderates.
Michigan’s ideal kind of Republican happens to be its Governor: William Milliken, who supported George Bush in the primary and helped him defeat Reagan 2 to 1. Reagan still causes uneasiness among many Republican regulars, who are certainly ready for a change in Washington but not too much of one. Rock the boat, to be sure, but for heaven’s sake don’t capsize it. Michigan is one state where Anderson may be hurting Reagan more than Carter because of the defection of liberal Republicans. Milliken, however, is now vigorously campaigning for Reagan because Bush is on the ticket, and may tip the balance in another too-close-to-call state.
In Carter’s corner is Detroit’s combative mayor, Coleman Young, all the scrappier now that his city has received an impressive $50 million in federal grants in the past two weeks. Young is sure to do his level best to bring out the black vote. More questionable is the blue-collar vote. The leadership of the powerful United Auto Workers union, bulwark of the state Democratic Party, is stepping on the gas for the President, but much of the membership remains skeptical about Carter, whose economic policies they blame for the fact that one-third of the auto industry’s employees have been laid off in the past year. To counteract this resentment, union leaders are trying to convince members that life under Reagan would be much worse. But nobody knows if the workers will buy that argument.
FLORIDA. The presidential race is influenced by local issues in every state, but perhaps the most inflammatory can be found in Florida. The influx of tens of thousands of Cubans and Haitians has put a staggering burden on state resources and sent state resources and sent the crime rate skyrocketing, tarnishing Florida’s fun-in-the-sun image. Many residents hold Carter to blame for letting the refugees enter in the first place and then not providing enough federal help. Last summer tempers rose so high that Democratic Governor Robert Graham informed the President that a visit to the state would be “counterproductive.” Last week Carter backed a bill providing $100 million in federal funds for relocating refugees—some $80 million of which will go to Florida. Graham then offered to campaign with the President later this month.
As in other states, the President must hold together an unwieldy ethnic mix of blacks, Jews and rural white conservatives —a tricky balancing act under the best of circumstances. Blacks show no sign of defecting. The problem is to get them to vote. The rural whites in the Florida panhandle are considerably more wary. They have reservations about Carter’s economic, defense and foreign policies, and they are attracted by Reagan, who speaks their language. So are the established Cubans in Florida, who feel that the Republican would crack down harder on Castro than Carter does.
More worrisome still for Carter is the Jewish vote, concentrated in the Miami area, where the President must win by a wide margin. Last week the Carter campaign was jolted when Dade County Commissioner Barry Schreiber, a Miami lawyer who supported Kennedy in the primary, joined the Reagan camp as an “unofficial liaison with the Jewish community.” Explained Schreiber: “As an American, I am deeply convinced that Mr. Carter cannot be trusted to keep his pledges concerning the security of Israel.” On Sunday the President got some welcome news. Although a poll by the Florida newspapers showed Reagan leading, 42% to 40%, the Jewish vote was lining up behind him against the Californian, 61% to 14%.
Both candidates are vigorously pursuing the vote of Florida’s sizable elderly population. Carter lambastes Reagan for once proposing a scheme once proposing a scheme of voluntary Social Security, but the Governor now insists that he would not change any benefits. The Republican assails the President for the inflation that is particularly hard on people living on fixed incomes. This time around, the Republicans are not conceding a single constituency to the opposition—a strategy that may well spell victory in November.
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In the final month In the final month of the campaign, the Carter forces will step up their attack on Reagan with commercials questioning his knowledge and his experience. The President will be scheduled for events that show him at his best: town meetings where he answers questions by concerned citizens. He is considering spending a night with a Jewish family in New York.
Reagan will try to avoid answering attacks by the President and concentrate on the economic issue and Carter’s competence, as he was able to do last week. Says one Carter aide: “His whole strategy is just to hold on. He’s doing that too damn well.” Reagan plans to use TV commercials aimed at specific states and to keep hammering away at his opponent’s failures without getting so personal that he harms his own genial image. Says Reagan Strategist Richard Wirthlin: “The campaign so far has been event-driven to a large extent. We think we can now bring it back to the Carter record.”
Yet events have a way of intruding on the best-managed campaigns, suddenly placing the candidates at the mercy of happenings largely beyond their control. If the economic indicators go up, as they did last week, Carter presumably benefits. Nobody can yet predict what will happen in the Persian Gulf war or who might gain from it. Carter might appear statesmanlike in his role as Commander in Chief, or he might seem inept because of his inability to influence events.
As in so many areas of the complex political life of a diverse nation, it all depends. So, while Reagan is ahead now, a campaign’s last month is always its longest. The voters’ interest warms, the attention begins to concentrate, everything said and spent matters more, the mosaic of choice begins to harden. The battle for the battleground states has, in a sense, just begun.