With Obama maintaining a small but persistent lead in national polls — and a seemingly larger one in key swing states — the Romney campaign has taken to comparing this race to the 1980 campaign, in which Jimmy Carter held a lead until voters swung sharply to Ronald Reagan in the final stretch. “Romney aides believe strongly that this race will play out like the 1980 campaign,” Byron York wrote recently.
This race will all but certainly tighten this fall, and it remains a toss up. But the comparison to 1980 struck me as flawed. I checked in with former Reagan adviser Ed Rollins, who worked communications on that campaign, and he agrees — there are very significant differences that make a last minute swing far less likely.
Reason one: Obama is a better and more likable politician than Jimmy Carter was, and Romney has not proven himself to be Ronald Reagan.
“There’s no question that on his best day, he’s not a Ronald Reagan,” Rollins said of Romney. “Traditionally incumbents don’t do as well in debates as challengers for the simple reason that challengers have to stand on the stage and look like an equal. Romney can do that, but Obama is good. He’s likeable. Carter was never likeable.”
“Romney is not proving yet that he has the solutions,” Rollins adds, noting that Carter had a very bad debate moment on nuclear proliferation. Obama is unlikely to make any major mistakes in the debates. Reagan hammered Carter for mismanaging the economy and national security; Obama is far harder to attack on the latter front.
Reason two: The electorate is far more polarized now. Rollins notes that a last-minute shift was enabled by the larger role Dem swing voters played at the time. “There was a big swing element in the Democratic Party — blue collar Democrats,” Rollins noted. “It’s smaller now.”
What’s more, this election will hinge heavily on base turnout, and the geographical area at play is far narrower than in 1980. “The battlefield is much smaller — it’s a totally different electorate,” Rollins says.
Reason three: Rollins notes that both campaigns — unlike in 1980 — will have all the resources they need, which limits the likelihood of a last minute swing and could reinforce the role of the base in the outcome. ”Obama has put an enormous sum into building his infrastructure,” Rollins says. “With such a saturation in TV buying between now and the election, things aren’t going to break through.”
If Romney is to win, it will have to be “ground out” over time, Rollins says, adding that a last minute dramatic swing “is awful hard to envision.”
UPDATE: Journalist Elizabeth Drew, who wrote a book on the 1980 campaign, adds another point in a quick phone conversation:
“In 1980 it stayed tight well into the final weekend. Then the news broke that the Iranians were not going to release the American hostages. That’s what broke the dam.”