The Election of 1980

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Election of 1980

In 1980, Democratic voters were divided between Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy, the younger brother of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. Carter was chosen as the Democratic candidate, but lost in November to Ronald Reagan of California.

Carter lost the election for several reasons. First, even die-hard Democratic voters felt that Carter was an ineffective leader. His achievements were not glamorous, and he had often stumbled, or appeared to stumble, over difficult decisions. Democrats who were disillusioned with Carter were ready to cross party lines to vote for a better alternative. Second, Reagan had an appealing personality; his earlier career as a movie actor made him comfortable in front of the camera, and his manner was always pleasant and good-humored. Third, Reagan campaigned on promises that appealed to almost all voters: to balance the federal budget, cut taxes, and “get government off the backs of the American people.”

A political movement called the New Right, spearheaded by a fundamentalist religious group called the Moral Majority, united behind Reagan and proved to be his strongest base of support. Reagan and the Moral Majority shared several views, notably their opposition to three things: abortion, gun control, and equal rights for women. The Moral Majority’s support of Reagan over Carter was ironic, given that President Carter was an evangelical Christian and Reagan was not; however, Carter and the New Right did not see eye to eye on social policies.

In 1973, the Supreme Court had decided a famous case called Roe v. Wade. An unmarried pregnant woman, using the pseudonym Jane Roe to protect her privacy, had sued the district attorney of Texas, where abortion was illegal unless a doctor stated that it was necessary to save a woman’s life. The Court decided 7 to 2 in favor of Roe that during the first three months of pregnancy, the government had no right to prevent a woman from having an abortion. The state did have the right to outlaw abortion during the last six months of a pregnancy, unless a doctor determined that abortion was necessary to protect the mother’s life and health.

Beginning in the Reagan era, with the emergence of the Moral Majority and the New Right, abortion became almost as politically divisive an issue as slavery had been 100 years earlier. In general, Democratic Party candidates have supported the decision made in Roe v. Wade: that the only person who has the right to make the decision to abort or to have a baby must be the mother, not the state. This position has become commonly known as pro-choice. Most Republican candidates take the view that from the moment of conception, the fetus is a human life, and that no one, including the mother, has the right to terminate that life. This view is commonly called pro-life.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Cold War Ends Practice Test

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