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Tags: 2020 Elections | Presidential History | gop | wirthin | iowa

Nashua Debate Not the Reason Reagan Won 1980 NH Primary

former us president ronald reagan post presidency in his office in century city california
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan sits in his office in Century City near Los Angeles, Calif., on June 9, 1989. Reagan was U.S. president from 1980 to 1988. (Carlos Schiebeck/AFP via Getty Images)

Craig Shirley By Monday, 10 February 2020 11:54 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Myths abound in American history.

George Washington in fact lost more battles than he won in the Revolutionary War.

Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation since it only applied in "renegade states" and Lincoln had no jurisdiction over the Confederate States in 1863, and it did nothing to free slaves in the North.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal never solved the Great Depression. It was only after Lend Lease in 1940 that the United States began to pull out of maybe the worst economic calamity is history. "History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there," said famed philosopher George Santayana.

The shorthand of political history and the theme of some unexceptional documentaries is that Ronald Reagan won the

New Hampshire primary over then-Ambassador George Bush simply because he stormed, "I am paying for this microphone Mr. Green!" at the now famous Nashua High School debate.

In fact, Reagan would have won the New Hampshire primary even without him manfully taking control of the debate which he indeed did pay for.

There were a number of factors which contributed to Reagan’s big win in the Granite State in 1980:

First, having narrowly "lost" the Iowa Caucuses to Bush, Reagan had five weeks to recover between the two, unlike the one week today between Iowa and New Hampshire.

Second, Reagan took control of his own campaign. For months, he’d been on auto pilot, listening to his talented but also flawed campaign manager, John Sears. Sears had urged Reagan to be cautious, since in the two previous years, the Gipper had become the front runner for the 1980 GOP nomination.

Sears, knowing Reagan was a hometown favorite in Iowa with a long radio broadcasting career, urged Reagan to duck all the "cattle shows" and debates and the locals became mad at Reagan for snubbing them. They took revenge by voting against him but even today, there is a great deal of doubt that Bush actually won in the Hawkeye State.

The state party was firmly in the hands of "Bushies" who simply stopped counting votes when Bush went ahead. CBS political director Marty Plissner, a genius at treads and vote counting, always was suspicious of the Bush win in Iowa as Reagan precincts were simply ignored or undercounted.

Reagan had been the victim of elitist Republican vote cheating, having gone through it before in the 1976 New Hampshire Primary against incumbent Gerald Ford, a favorite of the GOP country club. Reagan lost the primary by the narrowest of margins over "spoiled ballots."

Losing New Hampshire in 1976 lead directly to him losing the nomination to Ford.

Ironically, Reagan losing Iowa in 1980 was the best thing that happened to him all year, maybe in his life. It taught him he could control his own destiny and not to trust campaign hacks too much ever again.

Well, almost. Reagan tore up the script and campaigned high and low in New Hampshire.

Reporters were exhausted covering a candidate twice their age.

He also turned for help to New Hampshire GOP chairman, Jerry Carmen, a talented, chain-smoking tough operator who took guff from no one, including Bush himself, who Carmen especially liked to torment.

Meanwhile, Reagan’s pollster, Dick Wirthin’s tracking polls showed him moving slightly ahead in New Hampshire in the days before the primary. But some public polls showed Bush ahead. Bush, believing them, fell back on campaigning as a mushy moderate Republican who was surrounded by Reagan-haters.

Bush went before audiences and told them, "I’m up for the '80’s!" and that he had "Big Mo!"

It struck many as vapid and silly. America was in trouble in 1980 and voters wanted to know what solutions candidates had to offer to fix things.

Reagan understood this, he’d almost always campaigned on issues and now he and them took center stage. Reagan, after losing Iowa, was angry and the best tonic for him and for his failing campaign was to get out with people, talking about how he was going to solve the Jimmy Carter Recession, how he was going restore American morale, and how he was going to kick the c**p out of the commies.

Absent the Nashua debate, Reagan would still have won the New Hampshire primary but possibly not the 50% to 23% he routed Bush with.

But the New Hampshire primary result no doubt would have been closer with the now famous debate.

Reagan was never static.

He was always dynamic and adept at changing with the times or circumstances.

Reagan won the New Hampshire primary because he lost the Iowa Caucuses and in so doing, alter his own future — along with ours.

Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian. His books include, “Reagan’s Revolution, The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All,” “Rendezvous with Destiny, Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years," and “ Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan." He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, “December, 1941” and his new 2019 book, “Mary Ball Washington,” a definitive biography of George Washington’s mother. Shirley lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and the Reagan Ranch. He has been named the First Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater and will teach a class this fall at the University of Virginia on Reagan. He appears regularly on Newsmax TV, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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Reagan was never static. He was always dynamic and adept at changing with the times or circumstances. Reagan won the New Hampshire primary because he lost the Iowa Caucuses and in so doing, alter his own future, along with ours.
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Monday, 10 February 2020 11:54 AM
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