Why 2012’s presidential election shouldn’t be compared to 1980

As James Hohmann writes for Politico, any comparisons between Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and the successful 1980 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan may appear to be apt superficially, but might not stand up under closer scrutiny.

A handsome former governor faced a vulnerable incumbent, a weak economy and a crisis in the Middle East.

The description is of the 1980 presidential race between President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan. And it’s become the Mitt Romney campaign’s go-to analogy as he struggles in the polls in the final stretch of the campaign, insisting to donors and strategists that the election is still winnable in the final weeks.

But 2012 is not 1980, when Carter lost to Reagan in a landslide.

The 32-year-old comparison just doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny: the electoral map for Reagan was friendlier, the 1980 economy feebler, the incumbent more vulnerable, the crisis overseas worse and Reagan’s campaign skills were simply better.

Or as Reagan biographer Craig Shirly summed things up, “You have to look at it like a French impressionist painting. “If you stand way back, you say, ‘There are maybe some similarities between 1980 and 2012.’ But the closer you get to the painting the more it separates.”

While I’m certainly no fan of Ronald Reagan, he was most certainly a skilled campaigner, and Mitt Romney most certainly isn’t.


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4 thoughts on “Why 2012’s presidential election shouldn’t be compared to 1980

  1. Well I would say that while there are parallels, there are also large differences so I’m not sure that this is valid. Obama is much more skilled as a campaigner than Carter was, the media landscape cannot even be compared, and I would say in general most voters in our society today are much less informed as to the “meat” of issues than they were back in 1980.

  2. Both parties benefited from their mistakes of 1980. Obama cleverly avoided the financial interest rate crunch that Carter faced as PRIME went to 22%. Obama gave in to the bank bailout to much criticism. Also the Republicans have been too up front in their NO stances to Obama’s attempts, many successful, to right the Bush destruction of government. So the phony act of being fiscally responsible while killing the economy to discredit Obama has not worked so well despite the birther negative that will never go away. Also Romney is facing the wrath of more a more justified liberated woman than Reagan did. Ann Romney is pretty, but she’s not on a par socially and politically with Nancy Reagan. So, the Republican attempts to remanufacture 1980 has mostly backfired and their are all hiding or stepping away now to avoid the blame.

    1. Several big differences:
      Jimmy Carter had a Democratic congress for his entire first term.
      Carter fought off a tough challenge from Ted Kennedy. Reagan had a much easier time securing the nomination than Romney. Romney trails Obama in likeability, Reagan had a clear edge over Carter in personal appeal. There was also a much larger undecided vote, due mostly to the presence of a serious 3rd party candidate John Anderson. Anderson’s vote faded late and almost all of it went to Reagan. Romney needs to get a significant number of Obama leaners to reverse. A much tougher road than what Reagan faced. Reagan had a daily Nightline commercial running on Ted Koppel’s show reminding Americans of the number of days Americans were held hostage in Teheran.

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