Reagan Roundtable: The Lessons of the Reagan ’84 Campaign by James Frayne

by James Frayne.

On 7 October 1984, just a few weeks before the November election day, President Reagan’s campaign suffered a serious setback. Having put in an unconvincing performance in the first Presidential debate against Democrat challenger Walter Mondale, serious questions were being raised about the President’s age, health, and his ability to lead America through difficult times. To some observers, he did not appear to be in full command of the details of his administration. Attention immediately turned to the second debate, on 21 October.

The initial reaction of some campaign staff was to ensure that Reagan was prepared for the next debate by force-feeding him stats on every conceivable subject. But the campaign finally worked out that this approach risked getting in the way of what voters liked best – Reagan’s character and charm. They realized the best way of getting the President to put in a winning performance was by letting him be himself – by letting Reagan be Reagan.

In You are the Message, Republican media consultant Roger Ailes (now of Fox News) talks of being brought in to help prepare Reagan for the second debate. Ailes describes seeing Reagan forced to listen to endless advice, with consultants constantly rebuking him for not remembering detail. “Every time they finished a round, somebody in the audience would raise a hand and say, ‘Mr President, the tonnage on that warhead is wrong. The date of that treaty was so-and-so’”.

Ailes told the team to cancel the mock debates and give him access to the President for a couple of hours. “’If you give me that’, I told them, ‘he’ll win. If you don’t you’ll probably lose.’ I realized that sounded presumptuous, but actually I was gambling on Reagan and his innate gift of communication. I felt pretty sure that if I could get him back to being himself again, he’d be okay.”

In Ailes’ next session, he consistently encouraged Reagan to be himself. “For the next hour, we fired away at him. Every time he’d start to stumble, I’d ask, ‘What do your instincts tell you about this?’ and he’d come right back on track. He was very good.” The result was that Reagan’s performance was completely transformed in the second debate, with the President going on to famously deploy his killer line, completely dealing with suggestions he was too old for the job.

Letting Reagan’s character come through was a key reason why the campaign ended up winning a landslide. In results almost impossible to imagine now, President Reagan’s campaign took 49 out of 50 states, with only Mondale’s home state of Minnesota going Democrat. This is a crucial lesson for all modern American campaigns: character counts. In the US, to a very large extent people are voting on the basis of the candidate’s character. They want to know whether the candidate can be a competent leader and whether they understand the challenges facing ordinary people. The Reagan 84 campaign ultimately knew they had a brilliant candidate, and that they needed to do all they could to let him shine.

But there are other crucial lessons for modern campaigns from the 84 campaign. The second key lesson, and one that few campaigns get right despite its crucial importance, is that the 84 campaign was extremely disciplined in how it framed a clear choice for people. Lots of campaigns either fail to boil their message down sufficiently, or change it constantly, or they have too many. Reagan’s campaign developed a clear message early, and never moved. The media do not love campaigns like this, but they work.

The key campaign themes for Reagan were on the economy, focusing on how inflation and unemployment were both down, and on foreign policy, focusing on how the US was respected again in the world and how integral a strong defense policy was to that. But both themes were ultimately brought to life by the question: do you want to go back? Lee Atwater, the legendary consultant who famously ran Bush Sr’s brutal 88 campaign, and who was Political Director in 84, said you could sum up why the campaign in one sentence: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

The 84 campaign is perhaps best remembered for the “Morning in America” ad, widely viewed as being one of the best campaign ads ever made. But the ad worked because it made people consider a choice. The images are stunning, but as the narrator says: “Why would we ever want to return to where we were, less than four short years ago?” And this choice drives the narrative throughout – lower interest rates than four years ago, lower inflation, and lower unemployment. At all points: choice.

Again, this stark choice came out in that other ad the campaign is known for: the “bear ad”. “For some people the bear is easy to see, others don’t see it all. Some people say the bear is tame, others say it’s vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who’s right, isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear… if there is a bear. “ The choice: do you want a leader who takes defense strongly? Campaign insiders are said to have been particularly proud of this ad, making the point that even those who did not make the link between the bear and the Soviet Union still understood it was important to be strong.

Reagan put together the right campaign to deliver such a simple and effective campaign. Not only did he have communications genius Michael Deaver as his closest aide, Campaign Director Ed Rollins was a straight talking former boxer with an ability to cut through complexity. And Lee Atwater, his deputy, was basically uninterested in anything that could not be simplified sufficiently to fit on one of his index cards. Roger Ailes, well known for his simple and brutally effective ads, was also on the so-called Tuesday Team of creative consultants who produced the campaign’s TV spots.

The third key lesson from the campaign is that they completely ignored traditional political divides within the US electorate, going after every vote they could. These days, campaigns appear almost to accept that the electorate is split down the middle, that there are really only a few states in play during a general election, and that a very significant proportion of the electorate is extremely politicized and ideological. Reagan’s campaign did not accept this. They had their stronger areas and their weaker areas – in 84, they felt their weak points were in the agricultural Mid West – but they drove hard into the Democrats’ traditional heartlands.

The Reagan campaign secured the public endorsement of the Teamsters union, and the widespread support of ordinary union members. Of course, the campaign’s success in mobilizing voters outside the Republican Party’s traditional comfort zone was in part down to their strategy and tactics. But it was Reagan’s brand of politics and his public profile that ultimately made this work. Reagan instinctively understood that less affluent middle class voters are hard working, want the economy to do well and to boost the opportunities of their families, and have traditional values and are patriotic. For Reagan, it was a question of why wouldn’t voters with these values vote Republican.

Too many campaigns heavily determine the outcome of elections by assuming that voters do not change their mind or that few people can be persuaded to vote for the first time. They create complicated microtargeting campaigns designed to appeal to specific sets of voters while ignoring others. In other words, they deliberately create a very close and highly polarized race because they assume the electorate is static. While he was admittedly an extraordinary candidate, Reagan showed that the right campaign can appeal to significant numbers of voters who would not normally vote for a different party.

In conclusion, then, it is no doubt true that political and economic realities of 1984 made it highly likely that Reagan would secure re-election. But this should not obscure the fact that the 84 campaign was extremely well put together and well executed. Students of campaigns may look to Clinton’s 92 campaign for lessons on campaign structure; they might look to Bush’s 2004 campaign for lessons on voter turnout. But for lessons on character, clarity of message, and framing a choice, then you should look at the 84 election.

James Frayne is a London based communications consultant and edits the Campaign War Room blog.

4 thoughts on “Reagan Roundtable: The Lessons of the Reagan ’84 Campaign by James Frayne”

  1. Yes it was Reagan’s own. According to Ailes, in the debate prep no one wanted to ask the President the question about age. Ailes rightly judged that given it was going to be asked, you might as well prepare. So Ailes asked him straight out and the President said that he’d got this line that he’d used a couple of times and what did Ailes think of it…

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