As the above quote demonstrates, Walter Mondale based his presidential campaign around openness on the issues. He followed the same approach during the primary race, and beat Gary Hart, who was the more charismatic candidate. However, as discussed above, Mondale sorely underestimated Reagan's hold over the American public. The contrast between the Republican and the Democratic approaches can be clearly highlighted in examining the first televised debate.
According to almost all independent observers, Mondale clearly won the first debate. Reagan made many mistakes during the debate: he claimed responsibility for creating laws during his time as California's Governor, which were in fact his Democratic predecessor's legacy; he claimed that a large portion of his military budget was for "food and wardrobe"; and he lost himself many times during his speeches. The debate ended with Reagan's closing statement, which, before it began, Reagan declared "I'm all confused now" (Slansky 1989: 112). Reagan's closing statement ends:
MODERATOR: Mr. President, I'm obliged to cut you off there under the rules of the debate. I'm sorry. REAGAN: All right, I was just going to - MODERATOR: Perhaps I should point out that the rules under which I did that were agreed upon by the two campaigns. REAGAN: I know, yes (Blume 1985: 332).However, he failed to transform victory in the debate, which in the past would have been quite a significant achievement, into a tangible boost.
Mondale could easily have attacked Reagan for looking old and incompetent. In fact, age was the one advantage that Mondale had working in his favor. However, his failure to capitalize on this would also cost him. At the second debate, Reagan was asked about age as an issue in the campaign, and Reagan responded that no one should hold Mondale's youth against him. This glib one-liner managed to defuse an entire issue. Again, this demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the Mondale campaign.
This runs to the heart of Mondale's campaign. His analysis of Reagan's success was completely wrong. Mondale knew that opinion polls showed that Americans disagreed with Reagan's policies when presented with them directly (Croteau and Hoynes 1994). Thus, he decided to base his campaign around these issues. What he utterly failed to realize is that in spite of the rejection of Reagan's policies, Americans overwhelmingly approved of Reagan the President. Because he misunderstood what this meant, Mondale never challenged Reagan's image, and just as troubling, never bothered devoting significant resources to his own image creation. The reason Mondale failed in this way is because he didn't realize the importance of following opinion polls. One of his frequent one-liners was "People vote, polls don't" (Windhauser and Evarts 1991).