Reagan United Republicans, Can McCain?

Ronald Reagan made Republicans out of working Democrats.

By + More

Until the voting began, most pollsters declared the 1980 presidential race between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter too close to call. Yet the Republican challenger beat the incumbent Democrat in a landslide victory, as Reagan unleashed an unlikely secret weapon—registered Democrats. Working-class Democrats who had grown tired of their party's leftward lurch helped land the conservative Republican in the Oval Office twice.

They were part of a "Reagan coalition" that brought together disparate voting blocs, such as Democrats, economic conservatives, and national security hawks. "Reagan had the ability to pull them all together and keep the tension at a minimum," says William Pemberton, author of Exit With Honor: The Life and Presidency of Ronald Reagan (The Right Wing in America). To create this almost unstoppable force in American politics, Reagan and his advisers relied on his charisma, oratorical skill, political acumen, and a lot of American history. In fact, events that helped propel Reagan into the presidency in November 1980 began nearly 20 years earlier. Until the 1960s and 1970s, when Roosevelt's New Deal influence waned, income level typically determined party affiliation. Workingmen were born Democrats.

But during those decades of social unrest, issues such as civil rights, abortion, and student radicalism loomed large in the worried minds of voters. Views on these social issues blurred the established party lines. Reagan began his career in California politics at the time that these social issues came to the forefront, says Case Western Reserve University political science professor Alexander Lamis. "He was skillful, an optimist, and people liked him," Lamis says, "but behind him were these core issues, and he effectively capitalized on them." In his bid for California governor and then for the White House, Reagan crossed party lines and attracted working- and middle-class Democrats by speaking plainly, emphasizing economic strategies, and offering an optimistic vision of the future. His background as an actor helped enormously, making Reagan a natural in the age of televised politics. Pemberton recalls meeting a "Reagan Democrat" at a conference more than 10 years ago. The man, who had brought his 12-year-old son with him, told Pemberton: "Reagan made me proud to be an American again." The Gipper's ready charm and calming public speaking ability also helped to reach the varying factions of the Republican Party, as did his own life experiences. He could easily talk to evangelicals as a born-again Christian, for example.

Now as the country undergoes another period of upheaval, with economic anxiety rampant, an ongoing war, and an unpopular president, is there a candidate who can unite a political party as Reagan did? "There are a lot of signs of upheaval. The politicians are trying to capture that," Lamis says. "But if there is any candidate actually doing that, it's Obama."