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Now and Again

6:00 AM, Nov 5, 2012 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Carter attacked Reagan as an actor who was helpless without his script or director, a man longing for war with the Soviet Union, a favorite of the Ku Klux Klan whose election would separate "black from white, Jew from Christian, North from South." Obama attacked Romney as a vulture and vampire capitalist, who bought companies, drained them dry, and then cast them off with their employees while he made off with millions, who callously let those employees' wives die of cancer, who tortured a dog, (and a gay classmate), and who failed to befriend his garbage collector. Feminists came forward to declare that Romney and Reagan were throwbacks to the Stone Age or at least the mid-1950’s, who wanted to keep women out of the boardroom. Stray phrases—"Killer trees," (Reagan) and "47 percent" and "binders of women" (Romney)—were seized on and turned into multi-day stories.

Attacks such as these succeeded in driving down the numbers of the Republican challengers, until the debates established them both as plausible presidents and changed the momentum.

On the weekend before the Reagan/Carter debate, undecideds had been moving (slightly) towards Carter, who had a lead of three or so votes in the polls. The Thursday after (the debate was on Tuesday) Reagan was leading by four. That weekend—November 2-3—marked the anniversary of the takeover of the American embassy, and the collapse of negotiations aimed at ending the occupation and stalemate. By Sunday night, Caddell was seeing "some worrisome numbers." A day later, he called Hamilton Jordan in Portland and told him Carter would lose by 10 points. On Tuesday morning, Richard Wirthlin learned Reagan would carry Kentucky, and told him to get his speech ready. Reagan won the popular vote 51-41 percent (with 7 percent for independent candidate John Anderson), won 44 states to 6 for Carter, and 489 electoral votes to 49 for the president. "It’s a fed-up vote," Caddell told Elizabeth Drew of the New Yorker. For a year, they had tried to "keep the wolf from the door" and at last it engulfed them: A poll published November 16 showed that one in five registered voters had changed his mind in the final four days before the election, and the renewed emphasis on the hostage crisis crystallized the profound discontent. "I was convinced that these things were flying around out there," Carter adviser Robert Strauss told Germond and Witcover. "The thing that pulled them together was the hostage thing. . . . Reagan had not really been able to do that. He began [in the debate] with “Are you better off now?” . . . but it still needed something, and that was the absolute spark." In the event, Strauss averred, no distractions would have sufficed to obscure the reality. "The real world is all around us," Strauss said.

Will "the real world" this time trip up Obama? We’ll have to wait until Tuesday to see.

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