200 Years of Illinois: John B. Anderson Versus the World

john b andersonOn April 25, 1980, longtime Rockford congressman and powerful House leader John B. Anderson launched his independent campaign for the presidency.  Today, April 26, marks the anniversary of his first full day out on the stump.

Unlike most people who run indie or third- or fourth-party campaigns, Anderson had actual experience in government. He also differed from most others of his kind by not being a crackpot.

Anderson embodied a steady, not-altogether exciting Midwestern Republicanism that no longer exists, except in the Democratic Party. A decorated war vet and later a lawyer and Foreign Service official, Anderson initially mixed conservative notions about fiscal matters with the kind of mainstream Republican red meat that, for instance, led him to introduce motions suggesting the legal system follow the teachings of Jesus. Anderson’s social and cultural views became more complex, and liberal, as time passed.

By the late Seventies, he had a reputation as an independent thinker who had bucked the GOP on Watergate, abortion, and other hot issues. Insiders and reporters, meanwhile, respected his knowledge of procedure and policy. Popular with moderates of both parties, Anderson seemed a shoo-in to become the next U.S. Senator from Illinois. Yet when he lost the Republican presidential nomination to Ronald Reagan in 1980, he gave up a career in higher office for an independent run at the White House and, not insignificantly, center stage in a Doonesbury storyline.

anderson reaganIn the summer of 1980, one poll showed Anderson with a jaw-dropping 26% of the vote. Playing up his willingness to go against party orthodoxy—he had earned headlines in the GOP debates for speaking his mind, even in the face of hostile crowds—Anderson won the always romantic outsider/maverick label from wags. His energy, public speaking ability, and wonky seriousness created remarkable contrasts to Jimmy Carter, who acted like a man beaten down by four years on Devil’s Island; and Ronald Reagan, widely considered a genial buffoon.

Perhaps inevitably, real-world events turned against Anderson. He failed to raise adequate money. Getting on state ballots was tough and campaign mismanagement plagued his staff. His bid essentially ended when Carter refused to debate Anderson and Reagan at the same time, perhaps believing that two Republicans against one Democrat was bad odds. Anderson sparred with Reagan one-on-one and held his own against the Great Communicator. Long-term, however, his straight-ahead realism had no chance against the power of Reagan’s positive thinking. Anderson fell back in the polls. He finished with seven percent of the national vote and, keeping a promise, retired from government service.