Sabato's Crystal Ball

A Lesson Plan From the Great Communicator

Reagan's 1980 win as a syllabus for 2004?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics June 10th, 2004

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It’s been a moving week of tributes and retrospectives on the Reagan Presidency. But has the look back told us anything about the 2004 campaign?

For some time now, the Crystal Ball has suggested that the current “Big Issue” election of 2004 contains some echoes of 1968 and 1980 – the two other macro-issue campaigns in recent decades.

Let’s focus this time on 1980, the year when Ronald Reagan achieved what observers at the time thought unlikely. After all, he’d lost the GOP nomination for president in both 1968 and 1976, in part because he was perceived as too far to the right, too out of the mainstream. And by 1980, he was on the verge of turning 70, Eisenhower’s age upon leaving the White House after eight years of service.

Yet Reagan not only won, he scored a ten point landslide over incumbent President Jimmy Carter, gave the GOP their first Senate majority since the early 1950s, and added 33 Republicans to the House of Representatives. So much for Conventional Wisdom!

The similarities to 2004 are many:

  1. Foreign policy seemed a mess, with the United States bogged down in a protracted crisis in the Middle East (Iran in 1980, Iraq in 2004).
  2. Americans were unhappy about the economy, and gloomy about their financial futures.
  3. Our primary international enemy appeared to be on the march and achieving major goals (the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1980, al Qaeda and terrorism in 2004).
  4. As a consequence of all this, a sizeable majority said the country was seriously off on the wrong track.
  5. Many voters, approaching or exceeding a majority, questioned whether the incumbent president and his team were competent enough to handle the myriad challenges before them.
  6. An independent candidate for president added to the confusion of the election (John Anderson in 1980, Ralph Nader in 2004).
  7. The country as a whole was uncertain what to do, and torn between keeping the devil they knew – Carter, Bush – or turning to an untested and ideologically “extreme†alternative – Reagan on the right, Kerry on the left.

Amazing, isn’t it? And remember how unreliable the polls were for much of 1980. In the Gallup survey, for instance, Carter led Reagan substantially early in the year, but gradually the race became a seesaw statistical dead heat, with one or the other candidate ahead by just a few points all the way to late October.

At campaign’s end, everything came together for the Gipper, of course. Reagan walloped Carter in their only TV debate encounter on Oct. 28, 1980. “There you go again,” said the Great Communicator to President Carter as he warned of the disasters awaiting the nation under Reagan. And Reagan’s concluding statement still stands as the best summation for change ever uttered in an American presidential campaign: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” The collapse of the negotiations to free the American hostages in Iran on the Sunday before the Tuesday election also greatly expanded Reagan’s eventual margin over Carter. Incredibly, Election Day 1980 was the one-year anniversary of the seizing of the hostages in Tehran. Carter’s fate had been sealed 366 days before he lost the presidency – a reminder of the role of fate and luck, both good and bad, in every contest for the White House.

Had Carter managed to free the hostages just 48 hours before the election, it is conceivable that he could have managed to win a narrow reelection. Surely, both George Bush and John Kerry are waiting with bated breath to see if certain events in late October (the capture of Osama bin Laden, a terrorist act on American soil, a fresh disaster in Iraq) will swing the election one way or the other.

Look back one final time at our list of seven similarities between 1980 and 2004. For all the talk of another super-close 2000-style election, is it not very possible that 2004 will end up in a landslide for one candidate or the other – or at least a clearly decisive margin? And could we not mostly agree that if this set of seven still holds on Nov. 2, that the challenger, John Kerry, will win, just as the challenger in 1980 did?

And that is George Bush’s great task: to change some of these similarities to differences. Bush’s economy is already far, far better than the terribly sick one Carter had to run on. If the clouds part in Iraq, Americans may realize how well the economy is now performing in time to reelect Bush. If the Bush administration captures Osama, perhaps the aura of competence will return to the incumbent. If the economy roars and al Qaeda is stymied, maybe the voters will believe the country is on the right track again. If…Perhaps…Maybe. President Bush needs to use well the greatest asset of any chief executive – the ability to set the agenda and transform the realities of the moment.

Past is prologue, and then again, in this case it may not be. 1980 can tell us much about 2004, but these years, as all years, are different. History always enlightens, but much like even the best public opinion poll, it can never predict the future. We the People will create that, come Nov. 2.