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.
And just think, Republicans have been comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter since 2008.
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.
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.