In the spring of 1980, Rep. John Anderson made a historically consequential decision to run for president as an independent. The moderate Republican had just come up short in the presidential primary to Ronald Reagan, and was unnerved at his party’s turn to the right. But his abandonment of the party only accelerated that trajectory.
Independent John Anderson Teams Up With Legendary Consultant David Garth
Anderson’s decision to run as an independent was made abruptly, and he began without any significant campaign infrastructure. But he did have David Garth, the political TV ad maestro credited with upset victories for New York City mayoral candidates Republican John Lindsay and Democrat Ed Koch. So he decided to use Garth’s expertise, and go on the airwaves in July before either of his general election opponents and directly ask for small-dollar donations.
As explained in the book,“No Holding Back: The 1980 John B. Anderson Presidential Campaign” by Jim Mason: “The ads used the typical Garth formula: crammed with information, they displayed a horizontal split-screen technique with motion and still pictures of the candidate above and short subtitles below.”
The first half of the ad covers all of Anderson’s personal and professional biography, positioning him as an all-American figure that transcends ideology. Then, the narrator makes an explicit pitch for cash, offering a 24-hour toll-free phone number to “call in your pledge” along with a mailing address to send checks “from $5 to $1000” – previewing a future when all campaigns would chase small donations on the Internet.
In 1980, John Anderson Puts The First Campaign Ad on CNN
The narrator then shares a quote from former President Gerald Ford, “He’s the smartest guy in Congress, but he insists on voting his conscience instead of party.” The comment was made by newly sworn-in president to friends, explaining why Anderson would be a bad choice to replace him as House Minority Leader. But Garth used it as an example of Anderson’s virtues: “Don’t we really need that independence, that intelligence, that conscience in a president?”
The aids aired in eight cities and, for the first time in history, on cable TV – specifically CNN, which had debuted in June. But the innovative ad placement strategy failed to produce enough cash.
As “No Holding Back” chronicled, the ad cost $500,000 to air, but returned only $100,000 in pledges in the first week. By the end of August, the campaign was in debt $1 million and unable to continue its ad strategy. Anderson sputtered to the finish; after peaking at 24 percent in June polling. He won only 6.6 percent on Election Day.
Still, the instincts of Garth and Anderson and their aggressive use of cable TV and pursuit of small donors, would be emulated in the years to come.