With his latest report on the election trends, John Zogby stole a bit of my thunder. (If you don’t happen to check the Drudge Report regularly, you probably don’t know what I am talking about, which is good). In any case, I said all this on radio last week, so dammit I’m going to claim these insights as fully my own.
We’ve all heard for months now that this year’s presidential election is reminiscent of certain elections past. Let’s see, there’s the Kennedy/Nixon election of 1960, when JFK had to convince the electorate that a young and relatively inexperienced man—who was also different from previous presidents (Catholic)—had the right stuff for the Oval Office.
Or the Clinton/Dole election of 1996, when a young Democrat had to defeat a much older senator who also happened to be a war hero. Barack Obama probably enjoys thinking about the results of those elections.
Then there’s McCain’s attraction to the Truman/Dewey election of 1948, when a straight-talking candidate who everyone had counted out managed an amazing come-from-behind victory.
But the election that is seeming more and more like a carbon copy of this one is the 1980 battle between Reagan and Carter. Think about the similarities. The economy was in the toilet, with double-digit inflation and interest rates that reached 21 percent. The financially strapped voters wanted change, big-time.
That left the incumbent, Carter, with one main strategy: portray Reagan as a dangerous choice. And so Carter spent weeks and weeks saying that Reagan would be over his head, especially on foreign policy (and dangerously bellicose, given his staunch anti-communism). The public wasn’t sure whether to believe this or not, and so they waited until they could size up Reagan in the presidential debates.
What happened there was that Reagan was eloquent and almost preternaturally calm and soothing in his presentation. This didn’t seem like someone who was dangerous; instead, he seemed to have gravitas. Carter, by contrast, came across as petulant and, at times, petty (which is why Reagan’s famous retort “There you go again” had so much impact).
In truth, the public was far more eager to be reassured by Reagan than to be scared by him—after all, he represented change in a “change election.” The bias was towards liking him.
Reagan just needed to seem reasonable and thoughtful, and the election was his.
I won’t bother spelling out the obvious parallels with this year’s race. I’ll only say that, if my hunch is right and Election Day 1980 closely resembles Election Day 2008, then a lopsided vote could be in the offing.
Bill Beaman in editor-in-chief at Politics magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org