There was no question, in our own minds at least: If we could make this campaign a referendum on the performance of Jimmy Carter, we would win the election.
We also felt that President Carter would run a negative campaign and attempt to reinforce some of the perceptions about Ronald Reagan that we were seeing in our own polls: that he did not have the experience, that he wasn't quite up to the task of being the president. Our objective was to take the argument that it was Carter's inability to deal with challenges of government and make that the serious consideration of the campaign. We sounded a negative note at the convention, through the surrogates and through the other speakers, that took President Carter on hard. We identified seven strategic objectives in the general election. First, we not only had to solidify our Republican base, but we had to expand it among constituencies that had a high probability of coming over to our side. Briefly, there were three major target groups:
Right from the beginning of Ronald Reagan's political career, it is evident that he has consistently run extremely well among blue collar, union voters. He has a natural ability to appeal, to communicate and to bring those kinds of voters over to the Republican column far beyond any other Republican I've worked with. We also felt that Catholics were a viable target. Lastly, we have known for some time -- it goes back to '76 -- that the governor had a certain appeal in the South. Our initial strategy geographically did not involve running heavily throughout the South, but it did hinge on our winning both Texas and Florida.
That takes us to the second point. Geographically, we tried to establish the campaign in such a fashion to maximize the probability of simply winning 270 votes, period. As a result, we put tremendous resources in a relatively small number of states that we flet would be key. With Florida, Texas, the West, and Virginia and Iowa, you begin with a base of 205. You need only 65 more to win. There were a number of combinations of states that could provide 65. So, that geographical strategy was established relatively early, and that conditioned where we sent the candidate and how we allocated our media.
The third strategic objective was to focus the campaign on the issue of leadership. We knew that Reagan was viewed as decisive, as strong and as someone who could get things done. We felt these qualities were good mirror images of some of the weaknesses perceived in the Carter administration. In addition to reinforcing our strengths, we also attempted to show the compassionate, human side of Ronald Reagan.
Fourth, going back to the post-election analysis from 1976, we assessed that the campaign would likely be decided in the last 10 to 20 days. As a result, we allocated our resources heavily to that end. In the last 10 days, we spent $6 million on media. Recognizing the volatility of the vote decision, we were willing to absorb some heavy shocks in early October in order to come in with considerable force in the last few days to swing the undecideds.
Fifth, we were running against an incumbent president. While presidents can't always determine events, they can determine the timing of events. We tried to preempt that ability very early in our campaign by developing the phrase "October Surprise." We spoke of it frequently with the press. We fully expected that it was possible for the Carter administration to take some dramatic action which could cost us the election regardless of what our lead was five or 10 days out.
The sixth element of our strategy was, of course, to highlight the perceived Carter weaknessess, primarilyrelating to his record. In this regard, we had an interesting problem. It's my belief that you have to have source credibility to deliver an effective negative campaign. One of the things that concerned us, early on, was that we had a candidate who was very well known but not known very well. He didn't have a lot of source credibility.
We had, therefore, in the first phase of our campaign, to run almost entirely a positive campaign. We used our media dollars to talk about the Reagan record, which we had found early on was an excellent vehicle to round out and extend the depth of the man. I felt a little bit like those revolutionaries on Bunker Hill when they were asked to wait "until you see the whites of their eyes" before firing, because there was a lot of pressure for us to go after, with a great deal of vengeance, the Carter record. Everyone knew that was the vulnerability.
But it was my judgement, right or wrong, that if we had launched the negative campaign too early, it could have backlashed. It would not have had the impact that it had by waiting, as we did, until the last three weeks of the campaign, when the governor had some source credibility.
Lastly, we assessed early that the Reagan campaign had a comparative advantage in the areas of organization.
The strategy was very strongly conditioned by the kind of polling work we had done. For instance we used polls to identify constituencies, to confirm the fact that we had good targets among Catholics and blue collars and in the South. The polls were extremely valuable in assessing exactly what it was about the Reagan personality that appealed to these various groups.
The "October Surprise" strategy was more subjective, as was the orgainzation framework. But I would say that at least five of those seven objectives were strongly conditioned by the survey research.