When it comes to predictions and analysis, if you've seen one presidential election, you've seen one presidential election. Each has its own unique characteristics and circumstances. Nonetheless, 1980 comes to mind to a lot of observers across the political spectrum as the closest parallel to 2008.
While I have mentioned the parallel with 1980 before, I am not the first and certainly I am not the only observer to connect the two.
To many experts, the 2008 race is starting to look like the election of 1980 between President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.
Analyst Norman Ornstein says like this year, voters were in a sour mood in 1980 and looking for change, but unsure about putting Reagan in the White House.
"And I believe fundamentally that in 1980, the election was all about Ronald Reagan," he said. "People did not want another four years of Jimmy Carter. But they were not clear or comfortable for much of the way with whether Reagan got over the bar of acceptability to be commander in chief and president of the United States."
Through the 2000s, the United States underwent a wrenching period of low economic growth, rising inflation and interest rates, and intermittent energy crises. Added to this was a sense of malaise that in both foreign and domestic affairs the nation was headed downward. By the beginning of the election season, the prolonged Iraq war and parallel economic downturn had sharpened public perceptions of a national crisis.
Similar to how Herbert Hoover had been blamed for the Great Depression in 1932, George W. Bush was blamed for most of the nation's woes, especially the Iraq War, which was fought over false pretenses of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. Many Americans saw Bush as an inept leader who had failed to solve the worsening economic problems at home, and had made the US unpopular abroad, and the GOP candidate John McCain inherited the mantle of the unpopular Republican Party from Bush. McCain, after defeating Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination, attacked Barack Obama, the Democrat, as a dangerous left-wing radical. For his part, Obama, the charismatic Senator from Illinois, repeatedly ridiculed McCain, and won a decisive victory; in the simultaneous Congressional elections, Democrats won functional control of the United States Senate for the first time in 14 years. This win marked the beginning of the "Obama Revolution."
Sounds plausible enough as a possible future history. But before moving on, take a look at the original:
Through the 1970s, the United States underwent a wrenching period of low economic growth, high inflation and interest rates, and intermittent energy crises. Added to this was a sense of malaise that in both foreign and domestic affairs the nation was headed downward. By the beginning of the election season, the prolonged Iran hostage crisis had sharpened public perceptions of a national crisis.
Similar to how Herbert Hoover had been blamed for the Great Depression in 1932, Jimmy Carter was blamed for most of the nation's woes, especially the Iran hostage crisis, in which the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeni publicly humiliated the US by burning American flags and chanting anti-American slogans, parading the captured American hostages in public, and burning effigies of President Carter. Many Americans saw Carter as an inept leader who had failed to solve the worsening economic problems at home, and had made the US look weak abroad. Carter, after defeating Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, attacked Reagan as a dangerous right-wing radical. For his part, Reagan, the charismatic former Governor of California, repeatedly ridiculed Carter, and won a decisive victory; in the simultaneous Congressional elections, Republicans won control of the United States Senate for the first time in 28 years. This win marked the beginning of the "Reagan Revolution."
The parallels to 1980 are downright spooky. Take current polling, for example.
The most important event of the entire 1980 presidential campaign was the second presidential debate, which was held one week to the day before the election (October 28). Over the course of two hours, the entire race changed drastically, and what was considered an extremely tight race with the President slightly ahead became a comfortable Republican victory.
Nothing of that magnitude has happened since in any televised confrontations.
What happened? Carter, with a slight lead in the polls, sought and failed to put Reagan away on the issues.
Reagan's demeanor, on the other hand, was sunny and tolerant. When Carter made a reference to the governor's record, voting against Medicare and Social Security benefits, he replied with a cheerful "There you go again."
In his closing remarks, Reagan asked a simple yet devastating question that would resonate with voters in 1980 and beyond: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" According to Carter' Press Secretary Jody Powell's memoirs, internal tracking polls showed Carter's tiny lead turning into a major Reagan landslide over the final weekend.
While a boffo debate performance by Obama cannot be guaranteed or even assumed, McCain is setting up the confrontation as his experience vs. Obama's lightweight resume. Any McCain gaffes (he's very prone to them) combined with seriousness of purpose on Obama's part might well satisfy voters that the 'risky' choice isn't so risky.
For another parallel see Wikipedia again:
The 1980 election is considered by some to be a realigning election.
One doesn't have to go back to 1932 to find elements of realignment. Just look at how many and how often articles and posts invoke the ghost of Ronald (ketchup is a vegetable) Reagan. In 1980, the birth of the Reagan Democrat left the parties more polarized than before the election. Given the huge Senate and House Democratic momentum, the potential is there for a realignment every bit as definitive as 1980. In fact, 2008 might be the year when some of the more disastrous Reagan era effects on domestic and foreign policy, such as the structural GOP advantage on national security, might finally be undone.
Obviously, there are differences between 2008 and 1980. The average cost of a new house was $68,700.00 and the cost of a gallon of gas was $1.19. Also, Mcain isn't an incumbent (though he's a great stand-in for one... anyone who thinks he won't act like George Bush should watch him run Bush's third campaign). And most importantly, Barack Obama is not Ronald Reagan (thank God for that - Reagan was incompetent by the time he left the WH, which the revisionists will carefully scrub from the history books, and Iran-contra was a stain on this country's honor.)
Of course, the down side of looking like 1980 is that we will have to deal with all the polls without hyperventilating over each one. And, we won't find out how far the parallel goes until election day. Still, we could do worse than 1980 in picking an election to be like. This pic is from pollster.com:
The electoral college vote was a landslide, with 489 votes (representing 44 states) for Reagan and 49 votes for Carter (representing 6 states and the District of Columbia). NBC News projected Reagan as the winner at 8:15 pm EST (5:15 PST), before voting was finished in the West, based on exit polls. (It was the first time a broadcast network used exit polling to project a winner, and took the other broadcast networks by surprise.)
With Obama the winner, that would not be a bad model at all.