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How Ronald Reagan won his first election

June 7, 2013 by NCC Staff


It was on a June night more than 40 years ago that Ronald Reagan started his elected career with a party nomination to face an incumbent governor. And his surprising landslide win was a sign of future victories.


Reagan announces his 1966 campaign.


Reagan had some experience with campaigns in 1966. He had been a union leader as an actor, and he was elected six times to head the Screen Actors Guild.


The former Hollywood actor became active in the Republican Party in California after leaving the Democratic Party in the early 1960s.


Reagan also became a viable political candidate after making a landmark political campaign speech in 1964 on national television supporting the GOP presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater.


But Reagan’s first campaign was a big one: tackling the two-time governor, Edmund “Pat” Brown, in what was expected to be a close race in November.


Brown had defeated the former vice president of the United States, Richard Nixon, in the 1962 race for governor in California and had been a top candidate to run as Lyndon Johnson’s vice presidential nominee in 1964.


Reagan announced his intention to run in the Republican primary in January 1966, but he had toured California for the last six months of 1965 trying to determine if voters wanted him, and if he had a chance in the primary and general elections.


The Reagan team aired a 30-minute campaign spot months before the primary, outlining much of the conservative philosophy Reagan stated in his Goldwater speech, that the Republican Party was the party of “limited government, individual freedom and adherence to the Constitution.”


Related Link: Watch Reagan’s campaign announcement


His opponent in the Republican primary was former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher. The Reagan team leveraged their candidate’s ability as a public speaker with a grassroots campaign to win the nomination over Christopher. The team also used polling and other behavioral science techniques that, though familiar to modern political campaigners, were novel then.


Reagan easily defeated Christopher in the June 7, 1966, primary, which was apparently what Governor Brown wanted. For various reasons, the Brown camp saw the inexperienced Reagan as an easier November opponent.


But Brown had his problems. The governor won a closer Democratic primary against Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, and his popularity in a state with a considerable Republican presence had diminished since he defeated Nixon in 1962.


The fall election pitted Reagan, as the law-and-order candidate, against Brown, a proud liberal who cast Reagan as an extremist.


Reagan received an early boost from an endorsement from former President Dwight D. Eisenhower as the general campaign started. Nixon also actively campaigned for Reagan.


Reagan biographer Matthew Dallek wrote about the campaign and why it was a watershed event for Republicans.


“Brown was only the second Democrat to win statewide office in California in the 20th century, and he was the leading voice of liberalism in the state. Reagan made the conservative movement legitimate for the first time, both in California and later in the nation,” Dallek said.


Brown also had problems with voter unrest about riots and student protests, along with a conservative surge for Reagan.


Although pollsters expected a close election, with Reagan having an advantage, the future president won 57 percent on the vote in November 1966, and defeated Brown by almost 1 million votes.


After Reagan died in 2004, former political consultant Stuart Spencer wrote in the Los Angeles Times about one of Reagan’s keys to success in 1966: He didn’t rely entirely on consultants.


“His best speeches were the ones he penned himself—he wrote every one of his speeches back in the first 1966 campaign,” Spencer said.


“That November, when Reagan toppled Brown in the general election, a startled Democratic party awoke in disbelief. Though most thought the Reagan win a fluke, I had believed all along that he had that special something.”


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