The talk among college professors, students and those in the conservative southern community I live in, is that Barack Obama is going to win big, whether one wants it to happen or not. The other day, someone said it could be as big a victory as FDR's overwhelming reelection in 1936.
I pointed out that Democrats would do well to remember the lessons of the 1980 election. Others in the conversation dismissed such talk. After all, Obama's got a big lead in the polls. According to realclearpolitics.com polls, Obama is opening up big leads in Associated Press polls and even in Rasmussen Tracking surveys, which always favor Republicans. A Franklin & Marshall poll had Obama winning the battleground state of Pennsylvania, even thumping native son Rick Santorum!
But we have a lot of myths about the 1980 election. According to Will Rogers, the Larry the Cable Guy of the 1930s, said a myth is "what we know, that ain't necessarily so!"
1980 Election Myth 1: Reagan Always Dominated The 1980 Election.
Busted: Sure Reagan took 44 states and 489 electoral votes in 1980, compared to 49 for President Jimmy Carter. But Reagan only won 50.7 percent of the vote, while Carter got 41 percent and John B. Anderson picked up the rest. As recently as October 26, a Gallup poll had Carter ahead 47 percent to Reagan's 39 percent. Reagan's comeback was so remarkable that Gallup had seen nothing like it since they began polling in 1936.
1980 Election Myth 2: Reagan Won With An Awesome Debate Performance.
Mostly Confirmed: Even as a 10-year-old, I remember the Reagan quips of "There you go again," and Carter's stumbles. Polls clearly showed "The Gipper" winning in Cleveland. And Reagan won the election, right? But even after that superb performance, polls still showed the race was "too close to call." In Ted White's coverage of the 1980 election, even Reagan was stunned by the big margin of victory, and Carter's quick concession call.
Carter lost his big lead as he refused to a debate with Anderson in Baltimore, so it was up to the Illinois Congressman against Reagan that night (with the latter easily winning). Carter looked bad by not being there in Baltimore. He probably hoped Reagan would stick to his guns and insist that Anderson be there, and wasn't ready for Reagan to agree to the 1:1 debate.
1980 Election Myth 3: The Economy Cost Jimmy Carter The Election
Partially Plausible: The U.S. slipped into a recession in January of 1980. But the recession ended in July of 1980, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. If the economy really cost Carter the election, its effects would have hurt Carter in the polls much earlier. Instead, inflation (especially in gas prices) hurt more, especially with the onset of winter. The failure to end the Iranian Hostage Crisis may well have mattered more, since the huge flip to Reagan only occurred in the last week of the election.
1980 Election Myth 4: Reagan Won The Election More Than Carter Lost It
Busted: Before 1980, Reagan's electoral successes were somewhat limited. He upset Governor Pat Brown, and won reelection against a very weak opponent. Democrats retook the governor's mansion after Reagan stepped down. Reagan failed in presidential bids in 1968 and 1976, and lost the Iowa Caucuses to the unknown George Bush. We think of Reagan as a big election winner based upon the last week of 1980, and his huge reelection domination in 1984.
Lessons for Obama in 2012Carter's poor debate performance, troubles in Iran, Afghanistan, and high gas prices, and overconfidence did him in. All Obama lacks is that poor debate performance, for now. So Democrats would do well to remember the lessons of the 1980 election, unless they want Obama to have an early retirement party.