No Holding Back The 1980 John B. Anderson Presidential Campaign

About John Anderson

John Anderson was a distinguished ten-term United States Congressman from Rockford, Illinois.  A moderate Republican, he had an excellent record in House, had been elected to a leadership position in the Congress by his colleagues for over a decade, and was considered by many to be one of the finest orators on Capitol Hill.  First elected in 1960, he had been a leader in legislation for the environment, energy, campaign finance, and civil rights.  He was also known as something of a maverick, breaking with the GOP on such critical issues as Watergate, Vietnam, abortion rights, and gun control.  He was considered by the press to be among the premier congressmen in the country, known for his good judgment, encyclopedic knowledge of policy, straight-forward manner, and outspokenness.  Yet, he was not considered to have a promising future in the Republican Party’s future or have the potential to be a candidate for high office.  He had never won an election outside his House district, was a moderate in an increasingly conservative party, and did not seem to have the clout to command significant national television exposure.

In 1979, he decided to give up his relatively safe seat in the House, his position in the Republican congressional leadership, and a likely nomination for a US Senate seat to run what every expert considered an all but hopeless race for the GOP presidential nomination.  He did this because he was disturbed by many of the same trends in American politics that still exist today: the proliferation of special interests, gridlock and intransigence on Capitol Hill, and the unwillingness of politicians to speak honestly about the problems that America faced.  He decided it was worth giving up his political career to make a statement about American politics.  He set out to run a different kind of political campaign where he would speak with absolute specificity on the problems facing the nation and offer substantive proposals for dealing with those issues.  More than anything, what mattered to him was setting an example of how candidates ought to run for office: rejecting quick-fix solutions, being brutally honest with voters about where a candidate stood on issues, focusing on policy instead of image, and not sugar-coating the problems that faced the nation.

This plan did not meet with much initial success in 1979, as Anderson got very little attention as he attempted to gain traction in a race loaded with other heavyweight candidates, including Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Jerry Brown, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, John Connally, Howard Baker, and Robert Dole.  He struggled to raise money in a race with opposition who were much more skilled at it.  He also lacked campaign experience as a candidate who had run in one competitive election since 1960.  Furthermore, Anderson ran in almost the opposite manner as candidates for office generally conducted campaigns and it confused those voters who pay attention to political campaigns in the pre-election year.

As the 1980 New Year came and attention turned toward the upcoming presidential campaign, Anderson transformed from a curiosity to a genuine contender.  He ran as a kind of an anti-candidate, and his opposite way of campaigning was refreshing and different, attracting both media attention and public support.  In the first two months of 1980, there were a couple of episodes that made him stand out.  In one, at a debate in Des Moines, Iowa, he urged support of a grain embargo against the Soviet Union to protest their recent invasion of Afghanistan. Each of the other GOP candidates, concerned that such a stance would be unpopular in farm country and thus lose them support in the upcoming caucuses, disagreed.  Several weeks later, a gun owners group in New Hampshire hosted a forum for presidential candidates.  On stage, Anderson urged them to support a modest registration program that would keep guns out of the hands of felons, mental incompetents, and the untrained.  We left the lectern to a chorus of threats, insults, and catcalls.  None of the other candidates on the stage would challenge the hostile crowd and the media covering this event gave this difference a lot of attention.

Anderson then performed well beyond expectations in the first round of the GOP primaries. For a brief time, he was considered the major challenger to Reagan for the nomination, but he lost a critical showdown in his home state that greatly damaged his chances of winning the nomination.  Anderson was in the unusual position of having a growing national following while at the same time it was becoming increasingly unlikely that he could wrestle the nomination from Reagan.  Soon afterwards, he was persuaded to switch to an independent candidacy in the general election against Carter and Reagan, both of whom were viewed at the time as flawed candidates.  By June, he was running at 26% in the polls and pollsters were in agreement that he could win in November.  It was a historic moment in the history of non-major party presidential campaigns for the presidency.

During the summer, troubled by ballot access obstacles, financial problems, competition from the major party conventions, strategic problems, and management woes, he fell in the polls to the mid-teens.  He became embroiled in a major controversy over his appearance in the fall debates.  A qualification threshold was set based on his position in the polls and Anderson met the criteria.  However, Carter refused to appear on stage with Anderson for strategic reasons and Anderson had a one-on-one debate with Reagan.  He did well in it, but it failed to ignite his campaign.  Once it became clear that he would not win and the polls showed that the major party candidates were in a tight race, Anderson was abandoned by his supporters and limped to the finish with 7% of the vote.

His poor finish greatly undermined the importance of this effort.  The campaign changed American politics and how Anderson ran has influenced many future campaigns, including those of Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Ross Perot, Howard Dean, and John McCain.  Anderson was the first major mainstream political figure to align himself with the independent movement that still exists today in American politics.  While destabilization and fragmentation existed long before Anderson, he was the first candidate to give an established, credible non-party outlet for independent and disenchanted voters.  Secondly, he was the first candidate to expose how voters would appreciate a new realism in American politics.  In the aftermath of 1980, candidates were expected to speak in a more straight-forward manner to the voter than in past campaigns, rather than basing campaigns upon promises that the candidate often knew he had little chance of keeping.  Third, he was the first candidate at the national level to expose the residual interest that exists among voters in candidates who are truly different and run against politics-as-usual.  Fourth, he set a new standard of honesty in campaigning, which has forced the media and the public to hold candidates more accountable for their actions in campaigns.  And lastly, it was the Anderson campaign that gave hope to voters that politics in the post-Watergate era could be more truthful, pure, and honorable.

After the election, Anderson kept his promise to retire from public life.  Although he did flirt with the idea of forming a permanent centrist third party in 1984, in the end he opted never to seek office again.  He has instead moved onto a career in academia, teaching as a guest professor at a series of colleges across the nation.  For many years, he has been a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Florida.  Anderson and his wife Keke are in good health and split their time between Ft. Lauderdale and Washington, DC.

No Holding Back tells the dramatic story of the rise and fall of this important campaign.  It includes photos and political cartoons, and is the product of nearly six dozen in-depth interviews with participants from the campaign and information from dozens of unpublished internal campaign documents.

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