They sought to demonize Reagan as a tool of the rich, a cold-hearted wretch who would savage the safety net, a crazed anti-communist Cold Warrior whom it would be dangerous to entrust with nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan was Barry Goldwater redux.
Yet, looking back, what else could Carter do? Looking forward, what else can Barack Obama do?
By 1984, Reagan could credibly run for re-election on the slogan, "Stay the Course." Let us continue on this path that is leading us to the sunny uplands of a new prosperity and a stronger, more respected America.
Carter could not do that in 1980. Hoover could not do that in 1932. And Obama cannot do that today.
With the nation believing Carter had failed by the fall of 1980, and prepared to remove and replace him, Carter had one lane left to victory. He and the liberal media had to define Reagan for the electorate as an uncaring extremist and dangerous man.
Lest we forget, this Carter strategy was working.
Not until the late debate with Carter did the electorate take a closer look at Reagan and decide that this genial, principled conservative was no threat, but an acceptable alternative and far preferable to four more years of Carter.
After that debate, the undecideds came down hard for Reagan, millions of Democrats switched to him, and he buried Carter.
Again, that election is relevant because it is the election most similar to this one. We have a Democratic president who has presided over a huge loss of jobs, four straight trillion-dollar deficits and 42 months of unemployment over 8 percent. With Obama's approval in the 40s, it is clear that America is ready for a change.
One difference between 2012 and 1980? President Obama retains a reservoir of goodwill President Carter never acquired.
If this analysis is correct, the Democratic convention and the next nine weeks will witness one sustained slander of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as Ayn Randian agents of a plutocracy hell-bent on seeing its taxes reduced and the tax cuts paid for by eviscerating programs on which America's poor and the working and middle class depend for survival.
The one sure way Obama can win is to convince a nation ready for change -- to fear, loathe and recoil from the proposed agents of change.
Obama aides and media auxiliary have already painted the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., as permeated with lies and dog whistles to racists.
Yet, one wonders: After such a campaign, how does Obama unite and lead the country should he win.