Reassurance was slow in coming. A week before Election Day, polls showed Reagan and President Jimmy Carter in a virtual dead heat. That was the date of their only televised debate. Before a huge audience, Reagan came off as everyone's lovable uncle. "There you go again!" he scoffed when Carter (quite accurately) described Reagan's past opposition to the Medicare program. At the end of the debate, in a closing statement, Reagan asked: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" The prime interest rate at the time was 14.5 percent; inflation was running at an unprecedented 13 percent. Almost no one in America felt "better off" than a year earlier.
With help from Iranian ayatollahs who refused to release their American hostages before the election, a landslide developed in just a few days. Reagan trounced Carter by nearly 10 percentage points. The debate made the big difference, Fahrenkopf says (and many scholars agree). "The country was reassured."