Here’s snapshot of the race heading into the first presidential debate: Amid anti-American turmoil in the Middle East, Gallup finds the president leading his GOP challenger 45 to 42 percent. Despite continuing bad economic news, Gallup also reports that 48 percent of American say they have confidence in the president’s ability to deal with the economy — up five points since June — while confidence in his opponent’s economic stewardship has dropped nine points in the same period.
Good news for the Democratic incumbent? Think again.
Those were the findings of the Gallup poll on Oct. 28, 1980 — one week before Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in a landslide. A late October CBS News/New York Times poll gave Carter a similar lead over Reagan, 42-39 percent.
So what changed the trajectory of the 1980 election — and what lessons does Ronald Reagan’s experience hold for Mitt Romney today?
For one thing, debates really do matter. Some 100 million people tuned into Reagan’s only debate with Carter. Reagan systematically painted Carter as a failed president at home and abroad, presented a clear alternative vision for the country and deflected Carter’s efforts to paint him as a dangerous and unacceptable alternative. When Carter accused Reagan of wanting to gut Medicare and Social Security, Reagan smiled genially and replied, “There you go again.” He avoided gaffes, while Carter stumbled badly with his declaration that he had discussed nuclear weapons policy with his 12-year-old daughter, Amy — a line that became fodder for late-night comics and editorial cartoonists. And in his devastating closing statement, Reagan famously asked voters: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected around the world as it was?” As Craig Shirley, author of “Rendezvous with Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America,” explains, “The debate stopped Carter’s momentum.… [A]bsent the debate, it is my belief … that Carter would have won re-election.”
Reagan’s debate performance changed the course of the campaign because the 1980 electorate was open to persuasion. After the election, CBS News went back and re-interviewed most of the respondents in its October poll showing Carter ahead. They found that “one person in seven said they did something different than what they had said just prior to the election.” A stunning 14 percent changed their vote in the final days of the campaign.
The electorate may be similarly volatile today. A recent ABC News poll found that 22 percent of the electorate is “persuadable” — both anxious about how their preferred candidate would perform as president and interested in finding out more about the other candidate. Among independents, the number of persuadable voters is even higher — 26 percent. In other words, the election could swing dramatically in the closing weeks and even the final days — and it could swing in either direction. According to ABC, persuadable voters “include essentially equal number of Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s supporters.”
Unlike Reagan-Carter in 1980, Romney will have three debates to make his case. His first task is to avoid being the candidate who emerges with the “Amy Carter moment.” As we have seen, the media will jump on any Romney misstatement, real or imagined, to make the case that the GOP contender has stumbled again. Next, being anti-Obama is not enough. Romney needs to reassure persuadable voters anxious about how he would perform as president by presenting a compelling alternative vision. And he must convince persuadable Obama supporters — those still proud of having voted for Obama four years ago but disappointed in his performance in office — that the time has come to let him go.
Here is why Romney has a good shot at doing so: Obama is running a “stay the course” campaign at a time when the country wants to change course — even if they are not yet sure they want to change presidents. Obama’s campaign slogan, “Forward,” says “let’s keep going in the same direction.” Even former president Bill Clinton’s much-heralded line at the Democratic convention — that no president could have turned the economy around in just four years — is based on the premise that Obama has the country on the right track; he just needs more time.
But that is not what the overwhelming majority of Americans believe. A Fox News poll last week found that only 24 percent want the country to “mostly stay on the course it’s on,” while 73 percent say “many policies need to change.” Obama has failed to explain how his second term would be different than his first. This gives Romney an opening to capitalize on this desire for change and make the case that Obama will just deliver more of the same.
With the Middle East on fire, our embassies under siege, and 43 months of above-8 percent unemployment, persuadable voters are primed to hear this message — if Romney can make it effectively.
Marc A. Thiessen, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, writes a weekly online column for The Post.