The incumbent was facing serious economic challenges, but everyone assumed he’d pull it out in the general election. He was facing what the Conventional Wisdom determined was a weak candidate, a man the intelligentsia deemed too outside the mainstream to win the White House. The president led comfortably in all the polls leading up to the election, when all the undecided broke for the “extremist,” and thus Jimmy Carter became a one-term president until Barack Obama decided to fill in as proxy for his second term. And now he faces an electoral landscape similar to that of his ideological soulmate, only the challenger is doing a lot better than Reagan was doing in May of 1980.
Looking back at 1980, I’m becoming increasingly bullish about Mitt Romney’s chances.
Everyone seems to assume that this election is going to look and feel a whole lot like the past three elections. Even 2008, when Obama became the first Democrat to win a majority of voters since Carter, was tight enough that the red state/blue state from 2000 still meant something. But in 1980, only six states were blue. (Actually, I think for that election, they were using the color red for Democratic wins. They used to alternate the colors with every election. It’s only since the Bush squeaker in 2000 that the partisan colors have solidified.)
In 1984, Walter Mondale carried only one state – his home state of Minnesota, which rejected him in 2002. (Mondale holds the dubious distinction of being the only politician to lose a statewide election in all fifty states.) That year, even Massachusetts went for the Gipper. The rigid electoral polarization of this country is presumed to be a permanent fixture of American politics, but, like all such political axioms, this one will be true only up to and including the point when it isn’t.
It’s becoming increasingly likely that 2012 will look a whole lot more like 1980 than 2008.
I thought about this as Mick Jagger performed a really weird political blues satire on Saturday Night Live this weekend. Watch out for a fecal vulgarity that the NBC censors missed:
Nice of Mick to note that Romney “always says his prayers,” as if that’s a bad thing. I suppose that’s a condescending reminder that Romney’s a Mormon religious zealot, but it’s not as if Mick can get more specific, as he lacks, shall we say, a certain credibility in making the case for traditional religion or morality. Thus he has to come up with something else for the money line: “Don’t let him cut your hair.”
Really? That’s the best anti-Romney weapon in his arsenal?
The bully story has frayed around the edges since it first ran – the family of the alleged victim has called it “factually inaccurate” and the Washington Post bungled a critical detail about one of Romney’s classmates – but the reality is that few, if any, voters will change their minds based on a fifty-year-old high school incident.
This election will be about the economy, and the bipartisan consensus is that the economy stinks.
It’s not the only thing that stinks, though. The Obama reelection campaign isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. They can’t conjure up any leftover hope and change from the previous election, so they’re churning out blame and fear. Yes, the economy stinks, they concede, but it’s Bush’s fault. And look! Romney’s a financial predator/weirdo/extremist/flip flopper/woman hater/bully. Don’t let him cut the nation’s hair!
They want to make this election a referendum on Republicans and Mitt Romney, as opposed to a referendum on the incumbent, which such electoral contests almost invariably are. There are exceptions, of course. You’ve got Goldwater, McGovern, and Kerry as shining examples of candidates that troubled incumbents were able to paint as unacceptable alternatives, but Romney doesn’t fit their mold. He’s not a wild-eyed ideologue like Goldwater or McGovern, and, although he shares geography and wealth with Kerry, the similarities between the two candidates and their electability end there.
In 2004, three years after 9/11, the focus was on the War on Terror, not the economy, and Kerry was seen as too weak or indecisive to prosecute the war effectively. But as much as Obama would like this to be about bin Laden’s death, gay marriage, contraception, or involuntary haircuts, it’s not going to be. It’s going to be about the economy, and Obama making the case that Romney can’t handle that as well as he can is just not going to sell to non-ideological voters. That could well mean that the red/blue divide won’t be nearly as stark as it has been this past decade.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not yet willing to bet good money on a 1980 outcome. But I would advise the Obama supporters on Intrade to start hedging their bets.