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It’s 1980 in reverse

With 100 days left, Election Day 2020 is fast-approaching. The Real Clear Politics polling average gives presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden an average 8.7 percentage point nationwide lead. Swing state polls look even better for the former vice president. Biden leads in Pennsylvania by 11 points; Wisconsin by 8; Michigan by 9; and Florida by 5 — states President Trump probably needs to win a second term. 

Down-ballot polling suggests a Democratic tidal wave is gathering strength. The generic House ballot gives Democrats an 8.6 percentage point advantage, while the non-partisan Cook Political Report awards Democrats an additional five to seven Senate seats come November. Together, these numbers point toward a comfortable Democratic majority in the next Congress.

In many ways, 2020 is 1980 in reverse. That year, Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory and Republicans made remarkable congressional gains. Entering the fall campaign, President Carter’s approval rating stood at a dismal 38 percent. Carter hoped to overcome his poor marks by making his opponent the issue. Many saw Reagan as too old (he was 69 and would be the oldest president at that time); too out-of-touch (he called the Vietnam War a “noble cause”); and too gaffe-prone (he said trees were a major cause of pollution). Carter’s chief strategist, Hamilton Jordan, chortled that it was “delicious” watching Reagan “stumble from one controversy to the next.” The Carter game plan was clear: Make the election a choice, not a referendum.

This year, Donald Trump seeks to replicate Carter’s strategy. Trump repeatedly avows that the 77-year-old Biden has lost a step and would be put in a nursing home if elected. Just as Carter tried to sow fear – arguing that Reagan would cut Social Security and Medicare – Trump is engaging in fear mongering, contending that a mentally challenged Biden would be controlled by extremist elements within his party. But, like Carter, Trump’s game plan is deeply flawed. In 1980, Reagan reassured voters that they had nothing to fear. Today, most voters are not afraid of Joe Biden.

Running for reelection in 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “There’s one issue in this campaign. It’s myself, and people must either be for me or against me.” So it is with every incumbent president. If a chief executive improves the lot of average Americans and makes them proud, victory is assured. If not, moving vans come to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The bell-weather polling question on any president’s report card is this: “Generally speaking, would you say that things in the country are going in the right direction, or have they pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track?” First invented by Reagan’s pollster Richard Wirthlin, this query has become “the Dow Jones indicator of American politics.” Back in 1980, just 20 percent said the country was headed in the right direction. Today, it’s 19 percent.

In 1980, the country faced immense problems. By Election Day, American hostages had been held for one year in Iran and would not be freed until Reagan’s inauguration. The “misery index” (the combination of unemployment and inflation) stood at 20 percent. In a lone debate with Carter, Reagan put this final question before voters, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Ballots cast virtually screamed, “No!” and Reagan won 44 of 50 states. 

Adding to the landslide, Republicans gained an extraordinary 12 Senate seats to win a majority for the first time in 28 years. Democratic Senate titans, including former presidential nominee George McGovern, lost. Republicans also gained 35 House seats, giving them de facto control together with conservative southern Dixiecrats. The “age of Reagan” had begun.

This year, Democrats are poised to replicate Reagan’s feat for themselves. Like Carter, voters judge Trump a failure on the most important issue facing the country: The novel coronavirus. Today, more than four million Americans are infected, and the number of deaths is approaching 150,000. This is more killed than in every modern war the U.S. has fought since Korea combined. Trump’s job approval stands at 39 percent, and positive assessments of his management of the pandemic have fallen from 51 percent in March to 38 percent today.

1980 began a Republican era. Voters accepted Reagan’s premise that government was the problem, not the solution. Even when Bill Clinton sought reelection in 1996, 56 percent believed government was “doing too many things” better left to businesses and individuals. By 2019, 56 percent wanted government to “do more to solve the problems and help meet the needs of people.” The pandemic has only increased the public’s sense of urgency.

Something else has changed to favor Democrats. In 1980, 88 percent of voters were white, 10 percent were African American, and just 2 percent were Hispanic. By 2016, the electorate was 71 percent white and minority voters – including African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans – rose to a combined 30 percent. Forty years ago, the “real majority” was described as “un-young, un-poor and un-black.”

Put another way, voters were mostly white suburbanites who were married, middle aged, with middle incomes. Today, families assume many different forms, as a newfound “moral freedom” is transforming 21st century politics. Rising voters – especially racial minorities, single women and millennials – tilt decidedly in the Democrats’ favor. 

Today, as in 1980, the United States is a profoundly unhappy country. Forty years ago, voters judged Jimmy Carter to be a moral man who was not up to the job of being president. Today, voters see Donald Trump as an amoral, unlikable person who is an incompetent president. There are 100 days left in campaign 2020, and much can happen to an already exhausted country. But one thing is certain: The Reagan era is over. Unless things change substantially, this election is 1980 in reverse. 

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and the author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?”           

Tags 1980 Presidential election 202 presidential election 2020 presidential campaign 2020 presidential election Bill Clinton Donald Trump Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Ronald Reagan

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