Ten Miles Square


August 09, 2012 11:48 AM What Really Happened in the 1980 Presidential Campaign

By John Sides

Bryon York reports:

Romney aides believe strongly that this race will play out like the 1980 campaign, in which President Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan for much of the race until Reagan broke through just before the election.

As Jonathan Chait noted, 1980 is a poor comparison with 2012 for many reasons.  One is simply that the economy is not as bad in 2012 as it was in 1980.  Another is that Obama is much more popular than was Carter, whose job approval numbers were 15 points below Obama’s at this point in the campaign (see Gallup).  Consider this: in August 1980, Carter’s approval rating among Democrats was about equal to Obama’s current rating among Americans as a whole.  For more on the broader features of 1980 vs. 2012, see Matt Dickinson.

But there is another apparent misconception in the Romney campaign, which Nate Silver rightly picked up on in a tweet: Carter didn’t lead Reagan for much of the campaign.  Below is a graph of all the polls, plus a smoothed trendline.  The public polls were graciously provided by Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, who use similar data from every election from 1952-2008 in their forthcoming book, The Timeline of Presidential Elections—which everyone should buy.  I’ve supplemented their data with some late private polls conducted by the two campaigns, which are available in this paper by Warren Mitofsky.

The plot shows what Chait describes, which is the ebbing of Carter’s poll standing throughout 1980.  Indeed, Reagan didn’t need his convention bump—which he certainly got—to put him in the lead.  The Democratic convention helped erode Reagan’s lead but it never closed it altogether.

At the end of the campaign, Reagan did surge, but this only increased his lead.  His surge appears to have been brought on first by the debate, and then perhaps by several other events in the final week of the campaign.  To quote Mitofsky:

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 i, 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.

Carter’s pollster, Patrick Caddell, believed that Iran’s rebuff doomed Carter, saying “It was all related to the hostages and events overseas.”

The most interesting possibility here is not whether 2012 unfolds the way that Romney’s team thinks 1980 did, but whether it unfolds the way 1980 actually did.  That is, with a tight race blown open by the Republican convention, giving Romney a lead that Obama can never fully overcome.  This scenario is not currently the most likely, as the forecasts suggest, but neither is it implausible.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.


  • David in NY on August 09, 2012 1:02 PM:

    Odd, though, that how I remember it is Carter leading up until the end, and being really surprised by Reagan's victory, although his capturing the Senate was the really big blow. Perhaps I was not paying attention, or perhaps the press was underrating Reagan, who did seem a lightweight. But I think the Republican account may correspond with the memories of lots of people.

  • Rich on August 09, 2012 2:23 PM:

    Not implausible? Reagan related in a way that many people found likable. He offered a hawkish version of optimism in a time of "malaise". The hostage situation just capped it.In the old days, Carter would have been the kind of obscure figure who was nominated on the 30th ballot; kindof like James Garfield--a very decent guy who had the misfortune of quickly being shot early in his term. Carter was likeable but with a Calvinist streak and an odd collection of people in his Cabinet. In addition, he'd been weakened by ted Kennedy's aborted challenge.

    There's really no comparison between any of the players in the current cycle those in the 1980 election; absent an Iran hostage-type situation, the post-convention bump is pretty implausible.

  • jim filyaw on August 09, 2012 3:11 PM:

    iran, ted kennedy, and that by summer 1980, carter had firmly established himself as a sanctimonious twit, did him in. the woeful debate performance (he hung on to the podium as if it were a liferaft) and the screwup of his acceptance speech (hubert horation hornblower) plus the fawning over ted didn't help.

  • John B. on August 09, 2012 3:28 PM:

    1980 is to 2012 as 1776 is to 1588 -- almost entirely irrelevant.

    Unless you were politically sentient in 1980 you can have no idea how deeply and widely the hostage crisis affected the election. In a great many southern communities, especially -- still, then, largely Democratic -- nightly newscasters (and in some areas weather-persons!) made a habit of snarling out the latest "day" count since the hostages were taken. ("Today is Day No. 243 since Americans were taken hostage in Iran.... and nothing has been done to rescue them.") Many papers carried a daily number count on the front page. Nightly network newscasts almost every single day led their broadcasts with the latest news from Iran.

    The media, the public, and all the various party candidates at every level right down to city council were focused on Iran, not the economy. A fall-guy was needed, of course; no political narrative is complete without one. Carter was just the guy for the job.

    The fact, as we learned only years later, that the reprehensible Bill Casey was in France negotiating with the Iranians to be sure they wouldn't release the hostages until after our presidential election says all you need to know to realize 2012 has no resemblance to 1980. None ... except, of course, for the fact that the media once again is being played like a harpsichord by the Republican right-wing.

  • howie on August 09, 2012 5:59 PM:

    The belief that Reagan came out of nowhere to win comes in part from the mythology of the Gipper and part from the fact that in 1980 his victory seemed unlikely to us despite the polls because we were still operating under the old "rule" that Americans don't turn out sitting Presidents who stand for reelection. It never really was a rule, but we still thought that way.

    Also, the polls weren't constantly published and publicized back then.

  • Col Bat Guano on August 09, 2012 7:14 PM:

    Another thing folks forget, as a byproduct of the Iranian crisis, was the huge spike in gas prices in 1979. Watching gas go from 50 cents a gallon to a $1.25 didn't put anyone in a forgiving mood.