In October of 1978, Iran, a major oil supplier to the United States at the time, was experiencing a major uprising that severely damaged its oil infrastructure and greatly weakened its capability to produce oil. In January 1979, shortly after Iran's leader ShahMohammad Reza Pahlavi fled the country, lead Iranian opposition figure AyatollahRuhollah Khomeini returned from a 14-year exile and installed an Islamist regime that was hostile towards the United States. The damage that resulted from Khomeini's rise to power would soon be felt throughout many American cities. In the spring and summer of 1979 inflation was on the rise and various parts of the country were experiencing energy shortages. The gas lines last seen just after the Arab/Israeli war of 1973 were back and President Carter was widely blamed.
President Carter's approval ratings were very low -- 28% according to Gallup, with some other polls giving even lower numbers. In July Carter returned from Camp David to reshuffle his cabinet and give a televised address to the nation widely dubbed the "malaise" speech, though the word malaise was never used. While the speech caused a brief upswing in the president's approval rating, the decision to dismiss several cabinet members was widely seen as a rash act of desperation, causing his approval rating to plummet back into the twenties. Some Democrats felt it worth the risk to mount a challenge to Carter in the primaries. Although Hugh Carey and William Proxmire decided not to run, Senator Edward M. Kennedy finally made his long-expected run at the Presidency.
Ted Kennedy had been asked to take his brother Robert’s place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and had refused, in fear of his own safety. He ran for Senate Majority Whip in 1969, but many had thought that he was going to use that as a platform for 1972. But then came the notorious Chappaquiddick incident that killed Kennedy's car passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy refused to run for president in 1972 and 1976. Many of his supporters suspected that Chappaquiddick had destroyed any ability he had to win on a national level. However, in the summer of 1979, Kennedy consulted with his extended family, and that fall, he let it leak out that because of Carter’s failings, 1980 might indeed be the year. Gallup had him beating the president by over two to one.
Kennedy’s official announcement was scheduled for early November. A television interview with Roger Mudd of CBS a few days before the announcement went badly, however. Kennedy gave an "incoherent and repetitive" answer to the question of why he was running, and the polls, which showed him leading the President by 58-25 in August now had him ahead 49-39. Meanwhile, US animosity towards the Khomeini regime greatly accelerated after 52 American hostages were taken by a group of Islamist students and militants at the US embassy in Tehran and Carter’s approval ratings jumped in the 60-percent range in some polls, due to a "rally ‘round the flag" effect and an appreciation of Carter's calm handling of the crisis. Kennedy was suddenly left far behind. Carter beat Kennedy decisively in Iowa and New Hampshire. Carter decisively defeated Kennedy everywhere except Massachusetts, until impatience began to build with the President’s strategy on Iran. When the primaries in New York and Connecticut came around, it was Kennedy who won.
Momentum built for Ted Kennedy after Carter's attempt to rescue the hostages on April 25th ended in disaster and drew further skepticism towards Carter leadership ability. Nevertheless Carter was still able to maintain a substantial lead even after Kennedy swept the last batch of primaries, which took place mostly in southern and rural states, in June. Despite this, Kennedy refused to drop out, and the 1980 Democratic National Convention was one of the nastiest on record. On the penultimate day, Kennedy conceded the nomination and called for a more liberal party platform in what many saw as the best speech of his career. On the platform on the final day, Kennedy for the most part ignored Carter.
At 4:38 p.m.—before a third of the caucuses had even begun—CBS interrupted its regular programming with the bulletin:
CBS News estimates that when the caucuses are completed, President Carter will have won just over half of [the Maine] delegates. Second will be Senator Kennedy with just over a third...We repeat, President Carter is the winner.
^ abcdeLindsay, Christopher (Associated Press) (February 15, 1980). "Carter margin over Kennedy smaller than first believed". LexisNexis Academic. "Carter received 14,528 caucus votes, 43.6 percent; Kennedy received 13,384 votes, 40.2 percent; Brown received 4,621 votes, 13.9 percent; Uncommitted were 793 votes, 2.4 percent."
^ abcdefghijkElections Research Center (1981). Scammon, Richard M.; McGillivray, Alice V., eds. America votes 14: a handbook of contemporary American election statistics. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly. pp. 33–39. ISSN0065-678X. OCLC1240412.
^ abc. (April 26, 1980). "Kennedy and Bush still losing in delegates". National Journal12 (17): 69. ISSN0360-4217. "Vermont—Kennedy did surprisingly well in Democratic town and city caucuses on April 22 to choose delegates to the May 24 state convention, where the state's 12 national convention seats will be filled on the basis of the caucus vote. Kennedy won roughly 45 per cent of the vote to Carter's 32 per cent; the rest were uncommitted."
^ abcJohnson, Malcolm (Associated Press) (April 28, 1980). "Kennedy wins again but gains little". LexisNexis Academic. "The final totals showed Kennedy with 7,793 votes and Carter with 7,567. About 850 votes were divided between uncommitted and other candidates, but neither category had enough votes to win a delegate."