Memo To: Historians
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Reagan’s New Hampshire Victory
There is so much nonsense being written about the Reagan presidency, both how it arrived and what it accomplished, that I’ll have to spend considerable time writing these memos to you so the record might someday be corrected. The reason there is no much error in these first days since his passing is that journalists who are doing the remembering didn’t know what was going on at the time and they are now repeating the errors that formed the consensus back then. Today, now that President Reagan has been put to rest, historians can begin the process of getting it right, or at least coming closer. I’ll get the ball rolling with an account of how he won the Republican presidential nomination in 1980. His stunning, surprise victory in the New Hampshire primary was key to the nomination.
The consensus now seems to be that Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses to George Bush in January because his campaign manager, John Sears, wanted him to seem “presidential” and limited his appearances in Iowa to that end. Reagan had been favored to win the nomination before Iowa, but after losing to Bush there, found he was 10 points behind in the New Hampshire polls. The second part of this erroneous account is that after Iowa Reagan broke loose from Sears’ control amid arguments from other Reagan advisors who blamed Sears for the Iowa defeat and said, “Let Reagan be Reagan!” Reagan then campaigned on the ground, in supermarkets and bowling alleys in the weeks leading up to the primary. He also won the televised debate against Bush by announcing, “I paid for this microphone,” etc., leaving Bush dumbfounded. When the polls closed in New Hampshire and votes counted, Reagan had defeated Bush by 27 percentage points!! At noon on Election Day, the other Reagan advisors persuaded him to fire Sears and replace him with William Casey, who then guided the Gipper to victory.
The real story is that Sears kept Reagan out of Iowa because the caucuses were dominated by the GOP organization, which uniformly favored Bush, who had spent 44 days in the state compared to several by Reagan. Sears reasoned that it would be better to lose Iowa with complaints that Reagan should have campaigned more aggressively than to have campaigned more aggressively and lost. He believed it more important to have Reagan spend three days in Los Angeles preparing for the primary states, beginning with New Hampshire, essentially conceding Iowa. Sears invited me to LA for those three days, along with Jack Kemp and other supply siders, and I believe his decision was a brilliant one, one of several he made that got Reagan the nomination… even though he was fired on election day in New Hampshire.
The tide did not turn because Reagan went to supermarkets and bowling alleys in New Hampshire or because he won the debate with Bush and the other candidates who were contesting, including former Treasury Secretary John Connolly. It turned because Sears asked Jeffrey Bell, who had been Reagan’s research director in the 1976 campaign, to produce ten 30-second television spots to run in New Hampshire. There had been spots produced by the other Reagan advisors, but Sears correctly saw they were terrible and would not do the trick. The spots generated by Bell were sensational, with Reagan simply talking to a camera for 30 seconds each about how he hoped to get the country moving again with tax cuts that would emulate the Kennedy tax cuts. Jeff Bell wrote one spot using a line of mine, which we called “the Good Shepherd Spot,” that “We’ve got to get the country moving again, but we can’t leave anyone behind.” You will note, historians, this line is still in use with the “No Child Left Behind” legislation.
These spots were responsible for Reagan’s nomination. How can I say that? If you do a little checking you will find that after New Hampshire, Reagan was still behind Bush going into the Florida primary. Floridians had watched the New Hampshire debate or were inundated with TV news accounts of Reagan dumbfounding Bush with “I paid for this microphone!” and yet it did not seem to make an impression on them. What happened, historians, is that even though Sears had been fired, the spots were still there. Jeff Bell called Bill Casey and asked him to check with the Reagan pollster, who had after New Hampshire found the TV spots had a “90% approval rating” among the state’s Republicans. I called former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon and told him the same thing, that even though Sears was gone, the campaign should use those spots! You will find, if you are serious and check, that the spots did run in Florida, with the same result, and that everywhere they did run, Reagan came from behind and won the primary. In the next several critical states, the spots ran and Reagan won them all.
The proof of my assertion is that the campaign ran out of money under the campaign finance rules of the time. Reagan had the nomination locked up, but the GOP voters of Pennsylvania and Michigan still had to vote in their state primaries, and they voted for George Bush – not having seen the uplifting, optimistic, supply-side TV spots that totally undercut the view that Reagan was a right-wing ideologue who wanted to cut the welfare budgets, throw widows and orphans into the snow, and then bomb the Communists.
All this can be documented, historians, so as you make plans to write new books about “the Reagan legacy” you should at least consider digging into this realm. If you would like to discuss this with me, I am available, as is John Sears, Jeff Bell, and others who were at the core of these developments. As one further note, I will say that John Sears told me in advance of the Iowa caucuses that he expected to lose there but win in New Hampshire, for all the reasons cited above. After Iowa, then, I wrote a note to Reagan telling him not to be discouraged because of the failure there, assuring him that he would win in New Hampshire with the help of the TV spots. My note did get to him and he was so cheered, I was told, that he sent me an autographed picture, the same one that this last week graced the covers of both Time and Newsweek.