But state politics was never Reagan's principal interest. Almost from the beginning of his governorship, he had his eye on national leadership. In 1968 he made a brief foray into presidential politics, entering the race for the Republican nomination shortly before the convention—essentially as a favorite son. From then on, he and his supporters planned for another national campaign in 1976, after Nixon's second term. But Watergate ended the Nixon presidency prematurely, and when Reagan left the governorship at the end of 1974, he unexpectedly found an incumbent Republican president, Gerald R. Ford, standing between him and his hopes. Unwilling to wait, Reagan crafted a harsh conservative critique of Ford's policies and appointments and challenged him with surprising effectiveness in the 1976 Republican primaries. Ford hung on to win re-nomination by a narrow margin, but Reagan emerged from the campaign the clear leader of the growing Republican right. He hardly paused before beginning preparations for the 1980 campaign.
Only a few years earlier, so many Americans had considered Reagan to be a man of such extreme views that thoughts of him as a potential president had seemed absurd. But much had changed by the late 1970s, both in Reagan's own political credibility (a result of two reasonably successful terms as governor of the nation's most populous state) and in the character of national politics. The booming prosperity and ebullient optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s had disappeared in the maelstrom of Vietnam; the tumult of racial conflict, urban disorder, and student radicalism; the shambles of Watergate; and perhaps most of all the jarring changes in the American economy after 1973, which did much to increase insecurity and resentment. The American Right, which had appeared so thoroughly repudiated as recently as 1964, profited enormously from these changes and from its own successful efforts at rebuilding.
By the time Reagan began his campaign for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, conservatives were the beneficiaries of a remarkable communications and fund-raising organization, developed originally by conservative activist Richard Viguerie from a list of twelve thousand Goldwater contributors and expanded to more than 4 million contributors and 15 million names by the mid-1970s. Gradually, these direct-mail operations came to be accompanied by a much larger conservative infrastructure, designed to match and even exceed what the right saw as the powerful liberal infrastructure. There were now right-wing think tanks, consulting firms, lobbyists, and foundations, staffed by talented, committed men and women eager to promote the conservative cause. There was also a substantial and rapidly growing group of evangelical Christian conservatives who were becoming politically active and developing organizational strength of their own.
The failure of Gerald Ford's presidency did much to damage the fragile equilibrium that had enabled the right wing and the moderate wing of the Republican party to coexist, and convinced many conservatives that they must insist on a candidate true to their beliefs. Unwittingly, perhaps, Ford touched on some of the right's rawest nerves. He appointed as vice president Nelson A. Rockefeller, whom conservative Republicans had reviled for more than a decade. (Goldwater delegates had tried to boo Rockefeller off the podium at the 1964 Republican convention.) Richard Viguerie attributed the birth of the "New Right" to this event alone. Ford proposed an amnesty program for draft resisters, embraced and even extended the Nixon-Kissinger policies of détente, presided ineffectually over the fall of South Vietnam to North Vietnam in 1975, and agreed to cede the Panama Canal to Panama. All of these decisions became potent issues in Reagan's primary campaign against him in 1976. To stave off Reagan's challenge, Ford had to drop Rockefeller from his ticket and accept a solidly conservative platform written largely by one of Reagan's allies, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Reagan hailed that platform by saying that the party "must raise a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all the issues troubling the people."
But the phenomenon that may ultimately have done the most to propel Reagan's rise, and also to shape his presidency, was one that began in 1978. In that year, the conservative activist Howard Jarvis launched the first major, successful citizens' tax revolt in a generation by organizing an elaborate campaign behind Proposition 13, a referendum question on the California ballot rolling back property tax rates. At a time of slow economic growth and stagnating incomes, the revolt against taxes suddenly had a tremendous appeal. Proposition 13 passed easily, and a dozen other states passed similar referenda over the next several years. The tax revolt moved rapidly from local to national politics. Articulate popular economists such as George Gilder and Jude Wanniski created a new, inverted version of Keynesianism, which they called "supply-side" economics (to differentiate it from liberal Keynesianism, which emphasized consumer demand). By cutting tax rates (and offering particularly large cuts to wealthy people), the supply-siders claimed, government would encourage investment and help produce enough growth to generate higher total tax revenues. "There are always two tax rates that yield the same revenues," the economics writer Arthur B. Laffer liked to argue, explaining his briefly famous "Laffer curve." A lower rate could generate as much income for government as a higher one by stimulating growth and increasing taxable income. In 1979 Representative Jack Kemp of New York and Senator William Roth of Delaware proposed a 30-percent reduction in federal income tax rates, without suggesting that such a cut would require any significant reduction in government services. And in 1980 Ronald Reagan—who little more than a decade earlier had pushed the largest state tax increase in American history through the California legislature—accepted the advice of his campaign managers and made a major tax reduction one of the economic centerpieces of his presidential campaign.
Other events helped the Reagan cause as well. The hapless campaign of George Bush, his principal challenger in the Republican primaries, gave Reagan an important boost just before the critical New Hampshire primary. (Bush once referred to Reagan's supply-side program as "voodoo economics," a phrase that haunted both men for years, especially once Bush became Reagan's running mate and vice president.) More important was the deep unpopularity of Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president and Reagan's opponent in the fall campaign. Disenchantment with Carter was so great that Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts challenged him in the Democratic primaries—ultimately unsuccessfully, but effectively enough to do serious harm. Particularly damaging to Carter was a crisis that began in November 1979 in Iran, where a fiercely anti-Western Islamic regime, led by the fundamental-ist cleric Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, had recently seized power. At almost the moment Kennedy announced his candidacy, Islamic militants loyal to Khomeini seized the American embassy in Tehran and took fifty-two Americans hostage. The fate of the hostages soon became a national preoccupation and, over time, a political disaster for the president. A military rescue mission in April 1980 ended in shambles, reinforcing the charges Reagan and other conservatives were making about the dismal state of the nations' defenses. The Soviet Union, in the meantime, had launched an invasion of Afghanistan, raising Cold War tensions to their highest point in years.
In the end, though, popular frustration with the troubled economy was probably Reagan's greatest political ally. Soaring inflation and high interest rates—driven in large part by dramatic price increases in Middle Eastern oil—combined with stagnation and high unemployment to create an unusually sour political climate. The most memorable statement of the campaign was Reagan's question to the American people: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
Election day 1980, then, marked the intersection of many powerful trends: the successful rebuilding of a national conservative movement; growing economic anxiety; rising insecurity about America's place in the world; Jimmy Carter's spiraling unpopularity; and perhaps most of all, the apotheosis of Ronald Reagan. Once a minor film star and a politician whom many Americans considered an extremist, he had emerged as the most magnetic public figure in the nation. His victory in the presidential race was substantial. He won 50.7 percent of the popular vote to Jimmy Carter's 41. (John Anderson, a moderate Republican congressman from Illinois running as an independent, received 6.6 percent; and Ed Clark, the candidate of the Libertarian party, received a surprising 1.1.) Reagan won 489 electoral votes to Carter's 49. Hours before the polls closed, President Carter called Reagan in California to offer his congratulations. Reagan had been taking a shower, and as he later recalled it: "Standing in my bathroom with a wrapped towel around me, my hair dripping with water, I . . . learned I was going to be the fortieth President of the United States."
Perhaps equally important to the future of Reagan's administration as the decisiveness of the presidential vote, Republicans won control of the U.S. Senate for the first time in twenty-eight years; and Democrats retained control of the House by such a narrow margin that, for a time at least, there was an effective pro-Reagan majority composed of Republicans and conservative Democrats (known to many as "boll weevils"). Reagan would be the first Republican president since Eisenhower to enter office with a relatively pliant Congress.