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For his part, Reagan took the Anderson debate seriously, if for no other reason than that he would receive airtime before a national audience. David Stockman, a conservative who left Anderson's campaign following the Republican primary, prepped Reagan in a series of mock debates in which Stockman pretended to be Anderson. Stockman, as it happens, later went on to be one of the intellectual founders of supply-side economics as Reagan's budget director.
On the evening of September 21, at the Baltimore Convention Center, Anderson and Reagan took the stage. The two candidates jousted over the 50-cent gas tax, military spending, inflation, unemployment among minorities, and the decaying of America's inner cities, among other issues. Anderson came off stiff and academic, always calling his opponent "governor" or "sir." Reagan handled himself in a cool, folksy manner, referring to Anderson by his first name and using short, easily digestible sentences. Both candidates constantly criticized what they viewed as weak leadership in the Carter administration.
At the end, Reagan delivered the line that would ultimately clinch his presidency: "We can meet our destiny -- and that destiny to build a land here that will be, for all mankind, a shining city on a hill." Indeed, his election would spark the conservative ideas that have dominated Republican leaders up to George W. Bush.
Anderson followed with a closing remark that would chart the next two decades of his life. He was about to become an advocate for election reform and independent candidates. "President Carter was not right a few weeks ago when he said that the American people were confronted with only two choices, with only two men, and with only two parties..." Anderson told the audience. "Consider... voting for an independent in 1980."
Then his poll numbers dipped. Anti-Reagan voters started to buy into the argument that Anderson was a spoiler. An October 1980 cartoon in the Los Angeles Times depicted a young woman writing a letter. "Dear Congressman Anderson," she wrote, "the thought of Ronald Reagan becoming president was just too much. I've decided to vote for President Carter. Please try to understand."
"The lesser of two evils made an impression on me," says Gras, who worked for Anderson in Massachusetts and Colorado. "People say that now about Nader. But they were saying it in 1980, telling people not to vote for Anderson."
By late October, Anderson fell below 15 percent in the polls. That disqualified him from the second presidential debate in Cleveland on October 28. Carter participated, and Anderson's campaign quickly spiraled downward. Most staffers could feel it. "But it's like playing baseball," McKenzie explains. "You can't stop playing."
Reagan won all but 49 electoral votes, earning 51 percent of the popular vote. Carter finished with 41.1 percent. Anderson garnered 6.6 percent. But just as Nader proved to be a spoiler for Al Gore in Florida in 2000 when he raked in 97,488 votes from the Sunshine State, Anderson cost Carter 11 states in 1980. Assuming every vote for Anderson would have otherwise gone to the president, Carter would have beaten Reagan in Delaware, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vermont. Though still losing in the Electoral College, Carter would have been shy of Reagan by about 2 million votes in the popular election, a much closer race than actually occurred.
Indeed, Anderson's performance was impressive. After raising $18.5 million without public funding, he won 5.7 million votes, garnering 15.2 percent of ballots cast in Massachusetts and 8.6 percent in Reagan's California. In Florida, Anderson won 189,692 votes, or 5.1 percent -- nearly four times the percentage Nader attracted in 2000.
To this day, Anderson believes he should have had a stronger showing at the polls. He blames his disappointing finish on his absence during the second debate. "It robbed me!" he says. "I ended up with just under 7 percent. I think I would have had as good a chance as Perot got in 1992 to get about 20 percent of the vote. That would have given us a leg up on getting the critical mass to start a third party, a legitimate new political party. Seven percent wasn't enough to cut it. It wasn't enough to show a revolution was taking place on the American political scene."
Most of Anderson's supporters moved away from the Republican Party following the 1980 presidential election. Many went on to support Gary Hart's and Paul E. Tsongas' unsuccessful presidential bids, which tried to attract the center with liberal social and conservative economic policies. The Democratic Leadership Council, which championed policies similar to Anderson's, formed in 1985 and its most astute graduate, Bill Clinton, ultimately won on a platform of compassionate centrism in 1992. "In some ways," McKenzie says, "John Anderson was a precursor to Bill Clinton."
"I keep bumping into people who were Anderson supporters," former campaign research director Brown muses. "It was a major moment in American politics. The 7 percent of the voters disguises a much larger percentage of people who would have voted for Anderson had he had any realistic chance of winning.
"He came out with his head up high. He wasn't embarrassed. I don't think you can say that about Ralph Nader. He's embarrassed."
Twenty-four years have passed since Anderson made his run for the White House. These days, he's surrounded by more aspiring lawyers than political aides. Dan Dickenson, a third-year law student with a coif of brown hair and politics in line with conservatives of a generation ago, is one.