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.
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.