I've been wary of comparisons of this year's presidential race with that of 1980. I'd love it if the comparison holds, but have been worried 1) that the conditions aren't the same as in 1980 in all kinds of ways, and 2) that over-confidence the race will inevitably break to Romney at the end, as the 1980 race did to Reagan, could lead to complacency on the right rather than a sense of urgency, including a sense of urgency in pushing the Romney campaign to improve.
But it's also worth recalling that 1980 didn't have to turn out the way it did. The late break to Reagan wasn't foreordained. The fundamentals (a poor economy, a failed foreign policy, disapproval of the president) made the move to Reagan in the last week possible—but the move only happened after a clear victory by Reagan in the sole Carter-Reagan debate that year, 8 days before the election.
Which brings us to this question: Is one way to think about the 1980 comparison not so much that the break came at the very end of the campaign, but rather that it happened after the first (and only) debate of the campaign—a debate that was won decisively by a challenger who was able to be both reassuring to undecided voters but who also presented a clear choice of ways ahead?
After all, what's happened in the polls since last Wednesday night looks a bit like what happened in the polls after the Reagan-Carter debate. In 1980, it was pretty clear right away that Reagan had won, and that he had momentum, but it seems to have taken a few days for the lessons of the debate fully to sink in, and the bottom only fell out for Carter over the final weekend of the campaign. This year, there was a quick move toward Romney after Wednesday night, then the momentum toward Romney seemed stall out for a couple of days (perhaps thanks to the jobs report Friday), but the move to Romney seems to have resumed Monday and (perhaps) Tuesday. I know of two different private polls that showed the biggest pop for Romney so far on Monday night—and some of the public polls suggest that pattern as well. It will be interesting to see whether the momentum continued in yesterday’s polls, which will come out later today.
One, of course, has to be careful about over-interpreting day to day polling numbers and moves of only a couple of points, which can easily reverse themselves. But this last week could end up being not unlike the week after the Reagan-Carter debate on October 28, 1980.
Of course, unlike in 1980, we still have a vice presidential debate, two presidential debates, and a total of four weeks of campaigning left. The gains from one debate can be lost in another. It's too early to count on a 1980-like chicken yet. But the egg may be on course to hatch.