The challenges Jimmy Carter faced in his first term, including the Iran Hostage Crisis, left many Americans wanting change and his prospects for reelection in 1980 uncertain. The Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan, was popular and charismatic. He made major gains in a televised debate a week before the election, when he asked Americans if they were better off than they were four years earlier. Voters, either supporting Reagan or tired of Carter, elected the Republican candidate by a wide margin. Carter became the first incumbent to lose his reelection bid since Herbert Hoover in 1932.
After his first term in office, marked by an economic boom starting in 1983 and a solid reputation in foreign affairs, Ronald Reagan was in a strong position for reelection in 1984. Reagan enjoyed a large lead and kept a relatively light campaign schedule. His opponent, Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, challenged some of the President's conservative economic and social policies. He also questioned his opponent's age, which Reagan was able to dismiss in a debate, declaring "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Reagan enjoyed an overwhelming victory, winning every state except Mondale's Minnesota and Washington, D.C.
In the 1988 election, Ronald Reagan's Vice President, George H.W. Bush sought the presidency for himself. His opponent was the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, Governor of Massachusetts. Bush won the support of the American people by promising to continue the Reagan legacy. As a result, Bush won clear majorities in the popular and electoral votes.
Heading into the election of 1992, Republican President George H.W. Bush faced scrutiny for not responding proactively to the economic downturn, and for raising taxes against his explicit promise not to. In his campaign for reelection he faced challenges from Democratic Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Independent Ross Perot, a self-funded Texas billionaire. While Bush failed to run an energetic campaign, Clinton campaigned with skill, overcoming questions about his personal life. Clinton won the electoral vote by a wide margin, but the popular vote was much closer. Even though Perot took more voters away from Bush than Clinton, the combined votes against the incumbent president signaled a desire for change.
In his 1996 quest for reelection, Democratic President Bill Clinton faced the challenge of a resurgent Republican Party that had made great gains in the 1994 congressional elections. Clinton campaigned on the accomplishments of his first term, including an improving economy, as well as "family values." While the Republican candidate Robert Dole was respected for his integrity and his service during World War II, his age (73 years old) made many Americans wonder if he was out of touch with the younger generations. Texas billionaire Ross Perot also made another run a a third-party candidate, but did not achieve the success he had four years earlier. Clinton once again won only a plurality of the popular vote, by he won the electoral vote by a wide margin.
The 2000 election pitted Republican George W. Bush, the "compassionate conservative" son of former president George H.W. Bush, against the Democrat Al Gore, Vice President under Bill Clinton. Other third party candidates also ran, including consumer advocate Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and conservative populist Patrick Buchanan. The campaign between Bush and Gore was a close one, and ultimately came down to Florida. Discrepancies in the vote count forced the Florida results all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in favor of Bush. Bush won the electoral vote by a mere 5 votes, but Gore won the popular vote. This is the first time this had happened since Benjamin Harrison's victory in 1888. As a result of the close election, many Americans questioned Bush's legitimacy as he took office.