I suppose it's inevitable that election analysts will look for historical parallels, comparing one national campaign to another. Is 2012 going to be 1996, featuring a Democratic incumbent cruising to re-election after brutal midterm defeats? Or maybe 2004, featuring an incumbent eking out a narrow win against a socially-awkward rich guy from Massachusetts?
For the Romney campaign, the only model that matters is 1980 -- a struggling Democratic incumbent, burdened by widespread public discontent, loses badly to a Republican who then takes on mythical, iconic qualities. Bryon York noted yesterday that Team Romney "strongly" believes the next eight weeks "will play out like the 1980 campaign, in which President Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan for much of the race until Reagan broke through just before the election."
We'll find out soon enough whether Romney can turn things around, but it's worth appreciating just how flawed the '80 comparison really is. For one thing, Carter didn't lead Reagan for much of the race (Obama has led Romney for nearly all of 2012). For another, Reagan's breakthrough came after his convention (Romney received no meaningful bounce).
Greg Sargent took this even further yesterday with a good piece on why the parallels break down.
There are plenty of other key differences. The economy was in worse shape in 1980 than it is today. Jimmy Carter could easily be criticized for mismanaging the economy and foreign affairs, given the Iranian hostage crisis. Obama, by contrast, consistently polls better than Romney on national security. What's more, as Reagan biographer Craig Shirley has explained, the electorate of 1980 is vastly different than it is today. Far more states were in play, and Dem swing voters -- the so-called "Reagan Democrats" -- formed a much bigger chunk of the Democratic Party, making a late break of such a significant magnitude much more feasible than today. The electorate is far more polarized and the map far narrower this time around.
Ed Rollins, who worked on the Reagan campaign in 1980, notes yet another key difference: Romney is not Reagan, and Obama is not Carter. As Rollins says of Romney: "On his best day, he's not a Ronald Reagan." Carter was partly undone because of his debate performance; that's less likely to happen to Obama.
Team Romney seems to be operating from overly-simplified assumptions: the economy's in rough shape, the mainstream is unsatisfied with the status quo, ergo, the election outcome is practically pre-determined.
This may make the right feel better, but it misses all of the relevant details.
Reagan was far better liked than Romney; Obama is far better liked than Carter. Reagan had a broad appeal; Romney has a narrow appeal. Carter struggled with Democrats after a difficult primary challenge; Obama is overwhelmingly popular with his party. Carter had a limited record of accomplishments; Obama has an extensive record of accomplishments.
And perhaps most importantly, there are the surrounding circumstances, most notably on the economy.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but Obama inherited the worst crisis since the Great Depression, taking office after his Republican predecessor failed spectacularly in every area of public life. There is, in other words, a context that the Romney campaign fails to appreciate, and a recent history that most voters are not eager to re-embrace.