Reagan's debate quip, "There you go again," reminded voters of Carter's chronic crabbiness. Even more devastating was Reagan's final, direct question to American voters: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" No one, it seemed, could muster a "Yes!"
Yet there was more to the 1980 campaign than the final game-changing debate rhetoric -- and some of the details are relevant to 2012.
Carter conceded that he could not run on his economic record -- not with a high "misery index' driven by high inflation, high interest rates, high gas prices and high unemployment. The lengthy Iranian hostage crisis finally began to highlight rather than mask Carter's anemic domestic leadership. Without a record to defend, Carter instead pounded Reagan as too ill-informed and too dangerous to be president.
The negative campaigning had not only worked but also seemed to get under Reagan's skin. He kept going off topic while committing serial gaffes: He claimed that California had eliminated its smog; that trees polluted as much as cars, that Alaska had more known oil than Saudi Arabia, and that new evidence cast doubt upon Darwin's theory of evolution. Reagan got clumsily bogged down in distracting controversies about everything from Taiwan and the Vietnam War to the Ku Klux Klan and the stealth bomber program.
Reagan fumbled facts and numbers constantly, as the nitpicking Carter blasted him for implausibly promising lower taxes, balanced budgets and vastly higher defense spending all at once. Throughout late summer, Reagan could not tap widespread voter dissatisfaction with Carter's disastrous economic and foreign policy and his off-putting sanctimoniousness.
Even more unfortunate for Reagan, Republican Congressman John Anderson announced a third-party candidacy. Anderson and a fourth candidate, Libertarian candidate Ed Clark, eventually combined to siphon off more than 6.5 million votes, most of which probably otherwise would have gone to Reagan.
A desperate Reagan also was having difficulty getting Carter out of the Rose Garden to debate. Finally, in late October, Reagan capitulated to Carter's preconditions and met him one time, face to face, without Anderson present.