Mondale painted himself into a corner against Reagan and formulated bad campaign strategies that backfired upon himself. He believed that with the fiscal deficit that Reagan was running that taxes needed to be raised, and announced he’d be cutting the deficit through large scale tax increases and that admitting this made him honest because Reagan would have to do it in the future anyway.
But polling showed that 80% of Americans believed the deficit should be reduced via budget cuts rather than tax increases and Reagan announced he had no plans to actually raise or lower taxes. Mondale’s tax plan also showed it would raise taxes on middle-income earners. Whilst Democrats had traditionally advocated for higher taxes in return for greater prosperity Mondale seemed to be advocating for tax raises in return for nothing.
Voters, in general, were pleased with Reagan’s economic performance whilst in office, with his approval on the economy consistently above 60%. Private-sector job creation was nearly the strongest on record, economic growth the fastest in 34 years, housing starts at their highest in 6, unemployment falling although still relatively high, interest and inflation low. For an America which had just gotten through a serious recession Mondale’s beating of the drum for restraint, tax increases, and caution wasn’t appealing.
Voters, in general, were far less positive with Reagan’s foreign policy which was at 50% or less, with polling showing 40% of Americans believed they’d see a nuclear holocaust which would end humanity within their lifetimes. Voters were worried by Reagan’s aggressive posturing and at his failure to negotiate with the Soviet Union after the Soviet Union walked out of the 1983 Geneva Convention.
Mondale attacked Reagan on this by proposing a softer tone and an immediate push for arms reduction but somewhat bizarrely voters didn’t like this either. Polling showed that while people were afraid of Reagan’s foreign policy they did approve of the concept of “peace through strength” and they didn’t actually want a more conciliatory president.
Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko’s visit to the White House and the ascension of Chernenko to leader of the Soviet Union seemed to alleviate fears of a full-blown war, and showed that Reagan was able to be both strong and guarantee peace.
Reagan also underwent a process criticized as “blandification” where he somewhat distanced himself from his party and presented himself as a national figure of peace and unity, who wanted every day to be the 4th of July and brought Morning Again to America. Notably whilst Reagan won a landslide the Republicans lost 2 seats in the Senate and an 18 seat gain in the house still meant there were 253 Democrats to 182 Republicans, leading to a lashing out of some Republican figures, unhappy that Reagan seemed to do little for his party, with Newt Gingrich declaring “He should have been running against liberals”.
So Reagan was well received on economic issues whilst Mondale painted himself in a corner nobody seemed to support. Mondale advocated for an unpopular foreign policy whilst Reagan seemed to solve one of the key problems of his Presidency and alleviate concerns about nuclear war, moreover, Reagan was able to project a very positive feel-good tone of the campaign which attempted to reach out to all Americans.
2. Morgan, Iwan “Reagan: American Icon”.
3. Wilcox, Clyde & Allsop, Dee. “Economic and Foreign Policy as Sources of Reagan Support.”
4. Gromyko, Andrei – “Memoirs”.
5. Morgan, Iwan “The age of deficits: Presidents and unbalanced budgets from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush”.
6. Wirthlin, Richard “The Greatest Communicator”.