When Republican strategists like Karl Rove cite 1980 as a model for this year’s election, they usually have in mind two main elements: Ronald Reagan’s question in the late October presidential debate about whether voters felt better off than four years earlier, when they elected Jimmy Carter, and Reagan’s ability in that debate to reassure swing voters about his ability to serve successfully if elected, converting a very close race into a ten-point blowout by “closing the deal.”
The premise of most GOP analysts is that because of the bad economy, Carter was seen as presiding over a failed presidency, and that to throw him out four years after he had ousted the Republicans, all the voters needed was affirmation that Reagan was up to the challenge of turning the economy around. The application of this precedent to Mitt Romney’s race against Barack Obama is too obvious to need much elaboration: establish Romney as economically qualified and the election will be his.
It’s a plausible analogy and does suggest part of Romney’s opportunity. But its implied portrait of the 1980 election leaves out at least as much as it includes.
Bad as the economy was, by 1980 American foreign policy was beginning to look even worse. On December 25-27, 1979, the Soviet Union executed the president of Afghanistan, installed its own man, and began its bloody occupation of that country. It was the first projection of the Red Army outside the nations of the Warsaw Pact since the creation of that Soviet-sponsored bloc more than three decades earlier at the dawn of the Cold War. President Carter responded by suspending grain exports to the Soviet Union and ending U.S. participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The year 1979 also saw the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis, in which the new Islamic Republic of the Ayatollah Khomeini took 52 American embassy personnel captive. In its early months, the crisis caused a popular rallying to President Carter in his nomination struggle against Sen. Edward Kennedy. Carter suspended campaign appearances and pursued what came to be called the “Rose Garden strategy,” and a deficit to Kennedy on the eve of the Democratic primaries turned into a solid lead that Carter never relinquished. But the failure of the Desert One rescue mission in April 1980 and a seemingly endless deadlock in negotiations for the return of the hostages turned the issue into a negative by the time of the general election against Reagan.
On social issues, the 1980 election saw a realignment that greatly benefited Republicans. Much of the impetus came on two issues, religious freedom in education and abortion.
In 1978, the Internal Revenue Service announced that it would withdraw tax-exempt status from Christian “academies,” many of them in the South, if it found them to be thinly disguised instruments of racial segregation. Though the number of students potentially affected was relatively few, the IRS order generated surprisingly large protests among Bible-believing Protestants throughout middle America.
The 1980 election also marked a leap to partisan polarization of the abortion issue. In 1976, the first presidential election after Roe v. Wade, Carter and Gerald Ford had been nearly indistinguishable on abortion and it had not figured as a significant issue in that campaign. Much of the budding pro-life movement at that time consisted of Catholic Democrats. In 1980, at Reagan’s instigation the GOP platform for the first time became solidly pro-life, while the Democratic platform for the first time shifted toward a solidly pro-abortion stance.
Republicans under Reagan made significant gains among Catholic voters, carrying even very liberal but heavily Catholic Massachusetts. GOP gains among conservative Protestants were even greater. Among “born again” white Protestants, a pivotal component of the election of Carter in 1976, Republicans in four years went from the high 30s to the low 60s, according to network exit polls.
That social issues heavily influenced these previously Carter-friendly voters is apparent from the magnitude of their four-year swing. The shift from a Carter lead of more than 20 points in 1976 to a Reagan win of more than 20 points in 1980 represents a change in partisan margin of more than 40 percentage points. By contrast, the comparable shift of voters as a whole was 12 percentage points—from a 2-point Carter-Mondale win over Ford-Dole to a 10-point loss to Reagan-Bush.