1980 vs. 2012
Alas, Romney–Obama won’t be a replay of Reagan–Carter.

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on the debate stage in 1980


Jim Geraghty

If there is a sense of crisis surrounding the 2012 presidential election, it stems from high joblessness, a sense of diminishing opportunities, and broad economic anxiety. And the current “low burn” of anxiety could indeed explode into a much more intense sense of fear among the electorate this fall. Former New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg wrote recently that September could be a fateful month for the national economy; he cited Europe’s continuing fiscal mess, the potential for a sudden conflict in the Middle East involving Iran and Israel, the approaching fiscal cliff, and the historical pattern of investors taking decisive action at the beginning of autumn. The 2008 election occurred in an atmosphere of imminent economic calamity; the 2012 political environment may be similar, or even worse.

Late events will not be as important. The political mythology around the 1980 race suggests that the national media and most of Washington dramatically underestimated the appeal of Ronald Reagan, and that his 51 percent to 41 percent victory in the popular vote stunned an out-of-touch governing class.

While there were undoubtedly some observers flabbergasted by the margin of Reagan’s win, there are two complicating factors. First, while the polls underestimated Reagan’s margin of victory, Carter did not lead consistently through 1980.

When Carter did lead in the polls, he was rarely ahead by more than a few percentage points — an average of two percentage points in April, seven or eight points in three-way races (including John Anderson as an independent) in May and June, three points in the Gallup poll the weekend before the debate. But other polls put Reagan ahead by significant margins, particularly by June.

Second, the 1980 race included a slew of dramatic events in its final days, a pace hard to imagine now. For starters, Reagan and Carter debated each other only once, and that was only a week before Election Day.

“It is my contention that there was significant change in presidential preference by the public starting with the Carter/Reagan debate that accelerated through election day,” concluded Warren J. Mitofsky of CBS News in a review of the polling in the 1980 race. He summarizes:

Exactly a week before election day, the only debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan was won by Reagan by a margin of 44 to 36 in a CBS News poll, and by 46 to 34 in the AP poll, and by 2 to 1 in the widely publicized ABC mock public dial-a-poll.

During that same final week, Richard Allen resigned from the Reagan campaign for an alleged misuse of influence during his Nixon White House days. The same day Carter’s congressional liaison, Frank Moore, resigned after repeating the unsubstantiated story of the Ayatollah’s cancer. On Friday of that week the final economic indicator of the campaign showed inflation still seriously on the rise. And on Sunday morning, November 1, the Iranian parliament announced their conditions for freeing the American hostages. Jimmy Carter immediately abandoned campaigning and appeared on national television in the early evening to repeat much of what the public had been hearing all day. It was a week, in effect, with much that could affect the choices made by voters.

Mitofsky reports that, after the election, CBS News and the New York Times re-interviewed the respondents they had surveyed in the final pre-election poll and found that “approximately one person in seven said they did something different than what they had said just prior to the election.” Not only did Carter lose the remaining undecided voters in that final week, but some of his supporters lost faith in him and switched sides.

Will we see a similar phenomenon in 2012? One major complication is early voting. The Census Bureau reports that 30 percent of those who voted in the 2008 presidential election voted before Election Day.

Rules for early voting vary by state, but most states permit votes to be cast at least a week before the election, and in some states 15 to 33 days before. Illinois residents may vote “absentee in-person” at their county clerk’s office from 40 days prior to the election until the day before the election.

The notion of an “October Surprise” news event may be moot, when an ever-larger share of the votes are cast in early to mid October.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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