Flashback Friday: Jimmy Carter vs Ronald Reagan in Florida


Ronald Reagan campaigning with long-term Segregationist and 1948 “Dixiecrat” nominee Senator Strom Thurmond. Race baiting was an integral part of Reagan’s 1980 victory.

We’ve spent a lot of time on TFS through the years talking about the “Dixiecrat” vote in north Florida as well as the interior of the state. These voters overwhelmingly supported George Wallace in 1968, running as an Independent, stuck with Wallace in the 1972 Democratic Primary leading him to an overwhelming statewide victory and then voted en masse for Richard Nixon in the fall of 1972 helping him to a massive 44 point victory in the state.

In 1968, race and Vietnam protesters had been the issues whereas in 1972 school busing was the issue. Either way the counties of the Big Bend region, the interior of the state were voting largely based on cultural considerations. However in 1980 as the moral majority swept Ronald Reagan into office, the counties of the Big Bend and Eastern Panhandle wisely resisted what the rest of the state could not- Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s campaign which was based partly on suspended reality bordering on outright fictional fantasy world and partly on race and religion baiting was wildly successful south of Ocala in the state. Florida was easily Reagan’s best southern state in this election and gave him a larger margin of  victory by % than any state east of the Mississippi except for then rock-ribbed Republican New Hampshire.

Jimmy Carter carried every county between the Apalachicola and Suwannee Rivers on Election Day 1980. Ronald Reagan carried all but a handful of counties south and east of the Suwannee (Glades, Okeechobee, Sumter, and Hardee, all southern in their outlook were exceptions – Sumter today is dominated by The Villages, but the other counties remain solidly southern even in 2015) and every county between the Apalachicola and the Alabama  border, except Jackson and Gulf which border the river and its tributaries. Reagan won the state by 17 points winning counties such as Orange  and Broward by a nearly a 2 to 1 margin. (Broward was one of the few large counties in the country where Reagan’s 1980 margin was cut dramatically in 1984, an election where Reagan recorded a record landslide victory nationally. Broward was Reagan’s third worst Florida county in 1984, after being one of his best in 1980. In 1984 Reagan won Florida by 30 points winning every county except for Gadsden). Reagan also won by huge margins in Dade, Pinellas, Palm Beach and Hillsborough while barely carrying Duval.

In many of the Big Bend counties, Reagan won a majority of the white vote, but the combination of unified African-American support and continued loyalty to the Democratic Party by some southern whites based on economic issues carried Carter in these areas. This formula was repeated through much of the south on Election Day which was Carter’s strongest region (if you exclude Florida south of Ocala) despite carrying just his home state of Georgia. Many southern states were barely carried by Reagan – for example he won Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas all by less than two points. This electoral formula marrying poor rural whites and African-Americans helped Democrats continue to win many of these counties in state elections into the 2000s and electing rural legislators until recent years.

Southern pride played a role in Carter’s success among some white voters, as did a large African-American turnout. Reagan’s efforts to make race and “state’s rights” an issue did not work universally with southern whites. Despite launching his general election campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi the scene of the gruesome murders of three Civil Rights workers in 1964, some southerners resisted what countless suburbanites and yuppies could not.  Reagan gave his speech on “state’s rights” at the Neshoba County Fair.  Some of the media caught to correlation from the beginning but others mesmerized by Reagan’s acting skill and acting with petulance towards Carter’s reality based rhetoric

The rest of Florida acted with immaturity much like their northern cousins/siblings. They failed twice to see that what Reagan offered was a suspension of reality, a fantasy world we are still paying for. Thirty plus years later, the mass delusion of the Reagan myth has been shattered.

President Carter’s school master lecture to Americans on the economy, conservation, energy and sacrifice was not heard by most. History has proven that he was right and the majority of those who voted in November 1980 in this country were wrong. But that is the peril of Democracy. Instead of making the right choice the country drifted into a world of  the type of anti-intellectualism Richard Hofstadter had written about extensively in previous decades. Ronald Reagan was the perfect leader for this type of plastic nation,  Had Carter been re-elected it is safe to say rational energy policy would have avoided three American wars in the Middle East, and the countless drips of American blood spilled over it. The deficit would have never exploded, and we would be well on our way to true energy independence.

Those Democrats who crossed over and voted for Reagan, I certainly hope the last thirty five years of human history has convinced that you made a mistake. In this case north Florida showed the rest of the state the way. It’s a pity they did not listen.

For your listening pleasure our former President before he was elected on state’s rights in Philadelphia Mississippi, the site of the 1964 Civil Rights murders which become immortalized in the film Mississippi Burning:

And Reagan on the perils of “socialized medicine.” This was done been while LBJ was pushing passage of Medicare.

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