Republicans relish the tempting thought of history repeating itself: an incumbent Democratic president, widely perceived as a disappointment or a failure, heads into an election with seven out of every ten Americans believing the “country is in deep and serious trouble.” After dismissing his Republican challenger as an unserious joke, the hubristic incumbent loses the popular vote by a wide margin and the Electoral College by a landslide.
While Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is sure to enjoy the comparisons of this year’s presidential election with the one 32 years ago, Republicans shouldn’t fool themselves about the difficulty of the task before them. While it’s possible that Romney could win big, any serious examination of this race should recognize several enormous changes that have taken place in our national political environment in the past three decades, shifts that work against a repeat of Reagan’s rout of Carter.
It is a demographically different country. Some race analysts would assert that the first African-American president will have an advantage because he seeks reelection in a country that is increasingly ethnically diverse. While that is technically true, it’s far less of a factor than one might think.
From 1980 to today, the population of the United States has grown from 226 million to about 311 million. Whites made up 79.5 percent of the population in 1980, according to that year’s census, and the 2010 census puts that figure at 72 percent.
The increase in the number of Americans who identify themselves as belonging to more than one racial or ethnic group complicates the figures a bit, but according to the Census Bureau, Hispanics have increased from 6 percent of the American population in 1980 to 16 percent in 2010. Blacks, as a share of the population, have remained fairly stable: from 11.5 percent in 1980 to 13 percent in 2010.
For all the talk about President Obama’s enormous advantage among black voters, it is worth recalling that, according to exit polls, in 1980 President Carter received 94 percent of this group’s vote. That is only one percentage point lower than Obama’s share in 2008.
Gallup puts Obama’s job approval among whites at 37 percent, among blacks at 87 percent, and among Hispanics at 58 percent.
It is also worth noting that several of the key swing states are significantly whiter than the national average: New Hampshire is 92 percent white, Iowa 89 percent, Wisconsin 83 percent, Ohio 81 percent, and Pennsylvania 79 percent.
So if the racial demographic change amounts to only a small shift in favor of the Democrats, what societal trend has helped them? The declining number of married Americans. In 1980, about 65 percent of all American adults were married; today that figure is 51 percent. Among married Americans, Obama’s job approval is a low 38 percent; among those not married, it is 54 percent.
Campaign messaging such as the Obama camp’s “Julia” ad indicates that the Democrats understand that single Americans, particularly single women, make up one of the most important groups of voters for their campaigns to mobilize. If being unmarried makes you more receptive to the Democratic party’s message, then Obama and his allies enjoy a bigger pool of persuadable voters than their counterparts did in 1980.
The 1980 race featured about as severe and painful a foreign crisis as you could imagine. It is hard to overstate how emotionally scalding the images of the Iranian hostage crisis were to Americans at all levels. The blindfolded hostages paraded before the cameras in Tehran, Iranians using the U.S. embassy’s flag to carry trash, the sense of national powerlessness after the disaster of Desert One — all visceral, hard-hitting developments that reinforced the sense that President Carter’s leadership had utterly failed. The debut of ABC News’s Nightline program, giving nightly updates on the hostages’ ordeal, ensured that the story never left the public’s consciousness throughout 1980.
While more recent events have shown us that terrorism can strike at any time, so far foreign policy and national security are secondary issues to the state of the economy in this year’s presidential campaign. Yes, Americans are fighting in Afghanistan, and the war on terror, now under other names, continues with drone strikes in places as far afield as Yemen and Pakistan. But President Obama can point to the mirror image of the failed Desert One mission: the successful raid against Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Of course, in a perfect illustration of how minor the issue of terrorism has become in 2012, Obama and Romney were rated about even on how they would handle the issue in the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll.