It is of course true that without Carter’s train wrecks in economics and foreign policy, no shift of this magnitude could have happened among socially conservative voters. But that is precisely the point. Bad as the economy was, Reagan showed no desire to restrict himself to that issue. He ran a full-bore insurgent campaign, critiquing Carter’s every vulnerability and calling for new conservative policies across the board. A key aspect of Reagan’s ability to “close the deal” in the October debate was his effort to rebut Carter’s charge that a more hawkish foreign policy risked getting the United States into a nuclear war.
Why, in the wake of double-digit inflation and a brief but sharp election-year recession—far worse economic conditions than Barack Obama is facing today—did the Reagan campaign keep up its attack on multiple non-economic issues? Put another way, the question to ask is not so much why Reagan eventually won by 10 points as why, with less than two weeks to go, the race was still even, given how miserable the 1980 economy was.
The answer, we would argue, lies in a political reality shared by the 1980 economy and the 2012 economy: the length of the economic crisis and its chronological origin under a president of the other party.
The stagflationary crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s gained political traction in 1973 with the Arab oil embargo and the spike in oil and food prices. The inflationary 1973-75 recession under President Nixon was followed by a five-year recovery under Presidents Ford and Carter, but inflation never receded to the levels that had caused Nixon to impose wage and price controls in his first term. In the early months of 1979 it became apparent that double-digit inflation had returned. Despite increasing impatience with Carter, not many voters thought the economic crisis had originated with him. The troubled 1980 economy was part of a continuum that had already lasted seven years and had begun under Nixon. Reagan gained some ground not because voters trusted Republican economics, but because he proposed a deep tax cut that had been fiercely rejected both by Carter and establishment Republicans (including, earlier, his own running mate). Still, with two weeks to go before the election, there was no consensus in the electorate that Reagan had “won” the economic debate.
This was in contrast to 1932, when an election happened under the cloud of an economic crisis that began and got worse under three years of one president and one political party. Herbert Hoover lost overwhelmingly, and Republicans suffered staggering losses at the polls in 1930, 1932, 1934, and 1936—even though the economy in 1934 and 1936 had not come close to recovering to earlier levels. Voters remembered who was in office when the crisis began and still assigned the bulk of blame to Hoover and his party. As for the presidential election of 1932, Franklin Roosevelt said little about how he planned to fix the economy and felt zero pressure to do so.
Mitt Romney’s situation in relation to an economic crisis is much closer to Reagan’s in 1980 than to Roosevelt’s in 1932. He and his campaign have been excoriated for failing to dominate the economic debate, but—especially after Bill Clinton’s effective speech at the Democratic convention—it’s not easy to see how they could have done so. In times of prolonged economic distress, voters have long memories about when and under whom the trouble began. They do not exempt Obama from blame for picking ineffectual and counterproductive remedies such as Obamacare and the stimulus, but they still assign far more blame to George W. Bush than to Obama for the economy itself.
Given all these challenges, Romney and his campaign have done a reasonable job of at least neutralizing the economic issue and in many polls gaining a slight edge on the question of which candidate can better improve the economy in the future. If Romney loses, historians are unlikely to assign blame to his economic message.
What may puzzle them instead is why Romney and his super PAC supporters failed to follow Reagan’s 1980 example and mount a conservative critique that covers Obama’s extreme policies and myriad vulnerabilities on social issues and foreign policy, in an election year when these have become more glaring than ever before.
Frank Cannon and Jeffrey Bell are president and policy director of American Principles Project, a Washington advocacy group.
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