Iowa Caucus History: George Bush Beats Expectations Against Ronald Reagan in 1980

Following past candidates' success with "retail politics" in Iowa, George HW Bush came to Iowa early and often to build awareness and relationships prior to the 1980 caucuses. The clear front runner in the race, former California Governor Ronald Reagan, had Midwestern roots dating back to his childhood in Illinois and his time as a Des Moines radio announcer, but had decided not to aggressively campaign in Iowa. As the caucus results came in, George HW Bush was declared the winner. The Iowa victory catapulted Bush into the role of primary Reagan challenger, and he ultimately campaigned his way onto the winning republican ticket as Reagan's choice for Vice President in the fall of 1980.

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Sec. James Baker: "Politics is beating expectations. It's one advantage we had, our expectations were incredibly low. Our candidate was an asterisk in the polls, he didn't -- I think he may at one point just before the Iowa caucuses have polled something like two or three percent, but that was all."

George HW Bush: "If a candidate does less well than is expected, whether he's a front-runner or anyone else, it's going to signal something to the national media. Iowa did it before, Iowa will do it again."

David Yepsen: "He did the Carter model of just coming in and spending time here. And I can remember a lot of reporters did it, you'd hop in the back seat of the car and there was you and a driver and Mr. Bush and you had a chance to talk and really get to know the candidates a little better. It was a different era in terms of press politics and politician's relationships."

David Yepsen: "Georgia farmer Jimmy Carter came into Iowa, won the support of a large number of Iowa's farmers. What is a Texas banker going to do to win the..."

Bush: "Well you flatter me by calling me a banker, I was for one and a half years on the board of directors and a consultant to a bank."

Doug Gross: "I was managing Tom Tauke's campaign and this guy calls me up and wants to do a fundraiser for Tom Tockey but I had never heard of him. He had been supposedly director of the CIA but I didn't really know anything about him. And it was George H.W. Bush. He calls me up personally. And I call the radio station, KDTH in Dubuque, and I tried to call some other stations too to try to get them to come and only one radio station with a little reporter came with a little tape recorder to interview George H.W. Bush. And I still remember him, he sat there with his legs crossed like this and he had socks that had no elastic in it, they were all down around his feet, and I saw his legs. I said, who is this guy? But he had obviously made a commitment at that point to run for president so he wanted to get to Iowa."

Bush: "Best Cracker Jack grassroots organization, that's how I'm going to win."

Dean Borg: "Do you think that Ronald Reagan is the front-runner right now where you see the country running?"

Bush: "Yes. Well, only because I pick up a poll in any of these newspapers that you all represent and I would say I'd go with whatever it says in April or May. But that is not when the election is going to be."

Ronald Reagan: "I had to pitch on the way to the plate. There was only one thing you can do that doesn't get in a scorebook, I had him foul it off."

Former California Governor Ronald Reagan had Midwestern roots dating back to his time as a Des Moines radio announcer. Years in advance of the 1980 race, republican activists believed Iowa was ripe for Reagan to begin a march to the nomination. But his campaign had an alternative strategy.

Yepsen: "I think the Reagan campaign was a little top heavy, a little imperial, thought they were in much better shape than they were."

News Reporter: "Politicians and political observers are so anxious to find out who will win they are grasping at straws, or in this case a straw poll, taken by the Iowa Daily Press Association at Saturday night's fundraiser in Ames. 1,500 of the republican donors filled them out. The top vote-getter, George Bush, who has built up organizational support in Iowa this year and who has been most active with the balloons and baubles of campaigning. Fellow Texan John Connolly was a distant second. Just behind him, Robert Dole. The night's holdout, Ronald Reagan, polled fourth. Some observers say his absence from the Ames fundraiser will hurt him among republican politicos."

Straw Poll Participant: "Where you have organization or you don't have organization, you have supporters that are willing to come out and support you or you don't."

News Reporter: "And by that measure, George Bush has Iowa's inside track."

News Reporter: "Field organizer Ed Priola said today from a newly opened campaign office in Cedar Rapids that the delay is by design, that Reagan's campaign begins in earnest with his official announcement tonight. Priola said the former Governor of California, who was known as Dutch Reagan while a sportscaster in Des Moines years ago, still has the inside track in the Iowa caucus race."

Reagan Campaign Staffer: "I think the other candidates are beginning to worry about burning out. We're coming in strong. We've been doing all the organizing we can do without a candidate."

Iowa's 32 year old Lieutenant Governor Terry Branstad had allegiances to Reagan, but publicly avoided any endorsements. As the Gipper's absence on the Iowa campaign trail grew longer, Branstad offered his finely tuned political advice to Reagan campaign manager John Sears.

Terry Branstad: "As Lieutenant Governor I thought, well I shouldn't be officially supporting a candidate, I just wanted to be a good host. But obviously my heart was with Reagan and I kept calling John Sears and I said, you're going to blow this. You think you can just do one rally per congressional district, the Bush campaign is going everywhere. And I couldn't get them to return my phone calls and they didn't change their strategy."

Gross: "If you knew John Sears he was a pretty arrogant guy and he just decided he didn't need to deal with Iowa because they had Iowa in the bag and he was just going to win New Hampshire and it would be over with."

The pleas from Iowa Reaganites went unheard. The California Governor would double down on his Iowa light strategy, declining to participate in a key televised debate in downtown Des Moines.

Patrick Buchanan: "But they kept Reagan out of there and he didn't go in and they didn't have him debating in Iowa. And Sears didn't feel he had that many debates in him."

Debate Moderator: "We're about to bring you what many consider the first major event of the 1980 presidential campaign, a debate by six republican presidential candidates. It is sponsored by the Des Moines newspapers, the Register and Tribune and it comes just two weeks before the first real test of the presidential year, the Iowa caucuses."

Candidate: "I wish Governor Reagan was here, oh I wish he was here. I really don't know how he stands on the issues. I read, I watch, I listen, but I don't hear much."

Bush: "I don't believe being in Congress all the time is the answer. I was there long enough to know how it works but not to be part of the problem in my view."

Bob Dole: "I wanted to correct George Bush that he wasn't part of the problem, he tried to be part of the problem but he lost that Senate race in Texas. And I want to say to Governor Reagan, wherever you are, I hope you're having fun tonight, because we are. And if you're looking for a younger Ronald Reagan, with experience, I'm here."

News Reporter: "...to hear from your perspective, writing for a national news magazine, what would your lead be on this event?"

Hugh Sidey: "Well, Robin I think I would write no winners but perhaps a loser in the absentee, Mr. Reagan."

News Reporter: "Iowa Public Television reporter Dean Borg in the lobby of the Civic Center. Dean?"

Dean Borg: "James Baker, who heads the Bush campaign, what did you accomplish here tonight in setting your man apart from the man who is acknowledged to be the front-runner?"

Baker: "Well, Dean, I'd be very happy to accept the analysis that Hugh and John, your commentators, just put on the whole program. I think the fact that Governor Reagan was not here will hurt him in Iowa and perhaps elsewhere in the country. We're happy any opportunity we have to appear on the same platform with any of our competitors."

Baker: "We were focused on not so much what Reagan's strategy or lack of strategy was, after all he was a hugely prohibitive favorite. He was bigger than life, the 800 pound gorilla in the race, and we were focused more on what we were trying to do than what Reagan was or was not doing. But it is true that we noticed that he was not as detailed as we were in Iowa but we also felt he probably didn't have to be. As it turned out he did have to be. And we beat him."

Bush: "I know there's some risk in saying this, but now the American people understand it, we have got to strengthen rather than weaken the intelligence community of this country."

Buchanan: "I was in Iowa in 1980 covering it when I was on radio and I was at that downtown hotel where Bush was staying. Bush got on the elevator and that day, that morning he said, I've got the big mo. The big momentum."

News Reporter: "Nearly half of Iowa's republican caucuses are held in private homes. This one a mile and a half east of Elkhart in Nancy Huxburg's kitchen."

Caucus Participant: "I kind of like Reagan but I think he's too old."

As the 1980 caucus vote began compiling at Republican Party of Iowa headquarters, Bush took an early lead and declared victory.

Bush: "The impossible dream, the asterisk of all these polls, just four months ago."

Caucus Participant: "Bush 110, Reagan 38."

So George Bush is clearly the favorite here among these republicans.

Reagan was in California downplaying Iowa.

Reagan: "A straw vote that does not necessarily represent."

Buchanan: "I talked to my friend Sears, who was an old friend of mine from Nixon days, I said, John what happened? He said, we got as many votes as we expected, he just got more than we did."

Yepsen: "One of the interesting things that Reagan people will tell you about 1980 is they think they got cheated in Iowa."

The Republican Party of Iowa reporting system was built on brand new computer technology designed to compile data phoned in from urban and rural corners of Iowa.

Steve Roberts: "We did it in an effort to give a fast response to the many people who wanted to know what happened in 2,531 different meetings or what the strength was. And a day or two later wasn't fast enough. And this was the fastest way we could come up with."

Despite the best intentions of reliability, the system ultimately failed on caucus night.

We haven't been able to get very much out of the western part of the state where we expect to be quite strong.

Yepsen: "Bush took out an early lead, just as that late vote started to come in the computers crashed, and no real hope of getting them started again and reporters are, I've got to write a lead, Bush won."

Gross: "Without them stopping the counting in some of these rural counties in 1980 we wouldn't have had the -- he wouldn't have been Vice President, he wouldn't have been President, W would likely not have been President."

Yepsen: "Think how different American history would be had Reagan won the Iowa caucuses in 1980. The whole Bush dynasty never would have started."

Reagan had overplayed his hand and he would later write the Iowa caucuses were among the darkest days of the entire 1980 campaign. He would fire campaign manager John Sears only days later and triumph in New Hampshire. The Iowa victory catapulted Bush into the role of primary Reagan challenger, and he ultimately campaigned his way onto the winning republican ticket in the fall of 1980. James Baker, a campaign opponent, would become President Reagan's chief of staff.

Their challenger in four years would begin his quest for the presidency in the same place.


Excerpt from "Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency," Iowa Public Television, 2016