In 1984, Ronald Reagan defeated Democratic challenger Walter Mondale in a landslide for the ages. Outside of Washington D.C. and Mondale’s home state of Minnesota, Reagan cruised to a colossal victory, winning 49 out of 50 states and more electoral college votes than any candidate before or since. Mondale’s win in Minnesota was, in the end, a margin of only 3,761 votes—less than 0.1 percent. If Reagan had won just one more vote in each of Minnesota’s more than 4,000 precincts, he would have swept the nation and won every state.
How did this happen? How, a mere eight years after a failed primary attempt at Gerald Ford in 1976, did a “renegade,” “cowboy,” “anti-intellectual” former Hollywood actor become the dominant force in American politics? Much credit is undoubtedly due to Reagan himself—a once-in-a-century citizen-politician whose combined charm, tenacity, wit, and poise earned him the nickname “The Great Communicator.”
There was also Mondale’s especially weak candidacy. During a roaring economic revival, he spoke an “inside thought” out loud and told Americans that he would definitely raise taxes. But, perhaps to this day, not enough credit is given to the brilliant 1984 Reagan re-election campaign known as “Morning in America.” For President Donald Trump’s successful re-election in 2020, many illuminating lessons from 1984 would be indispensable to his bid seeking four more years in the White House.
Give Americans a Message of Optimism
First, the 1984 “Morning in America” campaign was glossed from head to toe in a sincere and unrelenting sense of optimism. The best ad from the election cycle, “Prouder, Stronger, Better” featured uplifting scenes of people going back to work, purchasing new homes, and once again—after years of Carter malaise—proudly raising the American flag. Instead of a negative campaign of gritty, black and white ads focusing on Mondale’s radical positions, “Prouder, Stronger, Better” (as it was officially known) focused on how things were looking up in America for the first time in a long time.
The positive changes Reagan’s administration brought between January 1981 and November 1984 could not be denied. President Trump’s re-election campaign can take a lot from this playbook, given how good things are for the country right now.
Hispanic unemployment fell to 4.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018. White unemployment stands at 3.1 percent, the lowest it has been since 1968. Black unemployment numbers finished 2018 at just 6.2 percent, the lowest number ever recorded since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking black unemployment rates in 1972. These are incredible realities that should be restated constantly and relentlessly. The very groups that President Trump has been accused of maligning and marginalizing are the very groups that have benefited most from his economic policies and the increased confidence that now permeates the marketplace.
Just like in 1984 when new home purchases were at a four-year high, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more people purchased new homes in the final month of 2018 than any time since May of 2008. When Trump took office in 2017, GDP growth was an anemic 1.8 percent—it ended 2018 at 3.5 percent. There is an air of hope and economic flourishing not felt since the short-lived dot-com boom of the late ‘90s.
In fact, you have to go back to 1984 to find a time Americans felt like the economy was truly on the ascent and working for them. Trump should channel these positive and uplifting storylines while using real Americans to relay how America is on the right track. We know from the favorable poll results after the president’s recent optimistic and hopeful State of the Union address that the public will respond. They’re longing for this type of message.
Salt in Some Humor And Wit
Besides its optimistic and heartening ads, another lesson from the 1984 campaign was that a candidate with a sense of humor should not be afraid to deploy it as a weapon. The issue for 2020 is what type of weapon Trump chooses to use. If it is the equivalent of a mace or war hammer, an unwieldy blunt instrument, then humor can harm more than it helps. “War hammer” humor may play at a massive rally of the stalwart Trump base, but it alienates the still persuadable “middle” electorate.
The suburban mothers who crippled the GOP’s midterm efforts in 2018 must be won back if Trump is to be re-elected president. This will require a more affable, disarming, and precise wit. If some of Trump’s more polarizing attacks can come off as blunt hammers, Reagan’s humor at its best was a rapier—agile, fast, light, and devastating. In 1984, Reagan used his affable wit to take on Mondale’s tax proposals, penchant for Soviet appeasement and American disarmament, and bloated spending record.
Most importantly, Reagan used humor to deflect attacks on his age. In many ways, the 1984 election was put out of reach on October 21. During his second debate with Mondale, Reagan fielded a politely delivered but vicious question asking whether Reagan was too old to properly carry out the duties of the presidency.
Instead of calling out questioner Henry Trewhitt, complaining it was unfair, or pivoting to lash out at Mondale, Reagan displayed the humor and finesse that endeared him to millions—he took a breath, smiled, and calmly stated that he would not make age an issue of the campaign, that he would not exploit for political purposes his opponent’s “youth and inexperience.”
The response was perfect. It remains the most flawlessly executed comeback ever seen in a presidential debate. Everyone laughed—Trewhitt, the audience, even Mondale himself. The rest is history.
President Trump is an accomplished political fighter and, like Reagan, possesses a rare Teflon-like quality that seems to inoculate him from damaging setbacks and criticisms that would spell the end of most typical candidates. Trump should continue to punch back. He must not yield in fighting ridiculous charges and unsubstantiated claims from an increasingly hostile press.
But a little bit of Reagan’s light touch, his “aww shucks” demeanor, and his poise under fire will allow Trump to get his points across effectively while not putting off the moderate voters he needs to win re-election. Using his knack for humor to disarm and charm rather than to bludgeon would pay political dividends for Trump in 2020.
Are Americans Better Off Now Than a Few Years Ago?
The final and perhaps most integral key to the 1984 campaign was comparing the America of Reagan’s first term with the backwards, pessimistic, failed policies of Mondale’s far-left Democratic Party. In his first successful run, Reagan closed the 1980 debate against Jimmy Carter by asking Americans if they were better off now than they were four years ago. It was a simple but poignant question. Reagan knew that the vast majority of Americans were not, so he offered his optimistic vision of a proud and prosperous America not seen since the early Eisenhower years.
In 1984, Reagan’s campaign flipped the 1980 closing statement into an even more compelling follow-up: “Do you want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?” Americans saw tangible, heartening progress in nearly every facet of life between 1981 and 1984, so the answer to this question (which ends the “Prouder, Stronger, Better” spot) was a no-brainer.
In November 2016, ISIS was still a threat, America troops lingered in Syria and Afghanistan with no end in sight, North Korea was as dangerous as ever, and American companies were closing their doors or moving overseas en masse. The contrast from then to now is remarkable, and the president should trumpet it.
While doing so, he should unmask the radical leftist campaigns of the likes of Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders for what they are: completely antithetical to the American principles of liberty, consent of the governed, and the Judeo-Christian values the United States was founded on. Americans must be shown, in clear contrast, just how undesirable a Democratic victory in 2020 would be.
The primary focus, however, should be on the Trump recovery and the inherent greatness of the country. Reagan’s 1984 campaign was in part so successful because Reagan’s team essentially forced Mondale to run against America itself.
The media will not remind them, so the Trump re-election effort must remind citizens how America is once again respected by her allies and feared by her enemies, and that businesses are returning to the United States and the economic outlook is stronger than it has been in decades. Trump should proudly and optimistically proclaim that he has made America great again, so why would we want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?