One of the recurring exercises in any presidential election year is the effort by pundits to find the most appropriate historical analogue among previous presidential elections. What is deemed “appropriate”, however, is usually determined by whether the historical antecedent favors your preferred candidate. This election cycle has been no exception. Democrats see strong parallels between the current race and the 2004 contest between John Kerry and George W. Bush. Although Kerry actually led in some early polls, the election remained quite close until Bush, the first-term incumbent running for reelection, pulled it out with slightly more than 51% of the two-party popular vote. Not surprisingly, Romney supporters don’t believe 2004 has much to say about this election. Instead, they point to 1980, when Ronald Reagan trailed Jimmy Carter in the Gallup Poll for much of the post-Labor Day period only to surge ahead in the closing week, as the most fitting historical parallel.
In this vein, Greg Sargent, writing in yesterday’s Plum Line column for the Washington Post, took issue with the 1980 comparison for several reasons. The first has to do with the difference in candidate qualities; Sargent writes: “Reason one: Obama is a better and more likable politician than Jimmy Carter was, and Romney has not proven himself to be Ronald Reagan.” As evidence, Sargent quotes long-time GOP strategist Ed Rollins who notes that Romney is no Reagan: “There’s no question that on his best day, he’s not a Ronald Reagan…. Traditionally incumbents don’t do as well in debates as challengers for the simple reason that challengers have to stand on the stage and look like an equal. Romney can do that, but Obama is good. He’s likeable. Carter was never likeable.”
If asked, I think many pundits would agree with Rollins’ characterization of Carter; he was the moralizing, preachy politician who – with a smugness bordering on arrogance – castigated Americans for their “crisis of confidence”. It was small wonder that he was viewed as so much less likable when compared to Reagan – the eternal optimist who spouted homilies about America as the shining “city on a hill”. Not surprisingly, Reagan pulled ahead after their one and only debate in late October, largely because voters had a stronger personal affinity with Reagan. The lesson? Reagan’s sunny optimism trumped Carter’s dour moralizing.
Alas, Rollins has the story completely backward, as Mo Fiorina reminded us earlier in this this New York Times editorial which I’ve discussed before. Rather than being disliked, on a personal level Carter was held in far higher regard than Reagan in the eyes of most voters – indeed, despite his low job approval, Carter had the highest-rated personal qualities of any Democratic candidate in the period from 1952-2000, and Reagan had the lowest of any Republican presidential candidate. As Fiorina summarizes: “The Ronald Reagan of October 1980 was not the Reagan of “morning again in America” in 1984, let alone the beloved focus of national mourning in 2004. Many Americans saw the 1980 Reagan as uninformed, reckless, and given to gaffes and wild claims. But despite their misgivings about Reagan, and their view that Carter was a peach of a guy personally, voters opted against four more years of Carter.”
As is often the case, the prevailing view of Carter as unlikeable likely reflects a post-hoc rationalization for why he lost the election, as well as eight years of a largely successful Reagan presidency. But that’s not how the two candidates were viewed in the run-up to the 1980 election – something Rollins evidently forgets.
But perhaps there’s a second good reason why this year isn’t like 1980? Sargent, again citing Rollins, argues: “Reason two: The electorate is far more polarized now. Rollins notes that a last-minute shift was enabled by the larger role Dem swing voters played at the time. ‘There was a big swing element in the Democratic Party — blue collar Democrats,’ Rollins noted. ‘It’s smaller now.’
Again, I think this analysis is at least in part wrong; as I’ve argued in many previous posts (see here, for example) there’s not much evidence that the electorate is more polarized now than in previous elections. What has changed is that the choices have become more polarizing. This may make it less likely that voters of one party will consider voting for the opposing party’s candidate. But it does not mean that there are not enough undecided voters left to preclude a small shift toward Romney in the closing weeks of this race – and in a tight race, a small shift will be enough.
Is that likely to happen? I don’t know. But if it does, it almost surely will have little to do with which candidate is more likeable and instead will turn on more deep-seated voter concerns regarding which candidate is better able to resurrect a moribund economy. In this respect, 2012 has a lot in common with 1980 – and with 2004 – and with most of the presidential elections in the post-World War II era.
3:45 p.m. I’ve added a link to the Gallup data showing Carter leading Reagan during most of the post-Labor Day general election campaign until Reagan surges near the end. Note that the race was quite tight for most of this period, according to Gallup.