Now that Santorum has had a run as the leading Not-Romney, another narrative is being advanced any time there is a poll that shows Romney losing to Obama: it's the same one--Reagan was losing to Carter too! Maybe it's Mitt Romney who is the win-in-a-landslide hope for the GOP?
First Things First: Polls This Far Out Don't Mean Much
Look, yes: it's a disclaimer--but let's keep two things in mind. The first is that trends, being trends are not meaningless. If the job growth we have seen continues. If Israel and Iran don't get into a disastrous war. If Obama manages, somehow, to find a way to bring down gas prices? Then if the economy continues to increase it's going to be a tough, tough year for the GOP.
A good deal of polling shows that. Right now the RCP average shows Obama beating both Santorum and Romney (about 9 points for Santorum, about 5 for Romney).
But also trends change. In order to change there usually has to be some event--but it could be as "minor" as Team Romney spending 1bn on nation-wide negative-ad buys. I mean, that could work. Or the Euro-Zone could collapse. Take your pick. If things do change then whatever reasoning was behind it will need to be kept in mind.
So what was up with Reagan losing to Carter in March?
Gallup gives us a Presidential Approval Tracking Tool. Here we see Obama (light green) and Carter (dark green) with their # of days in office. Oh, Gallup, that #-of-days-in-office is so helpful. I mean, if I want to know what happened 1000 days into Carter's term? Boy--that graph is so useful.
Next time, geniuses, make it so I can click and see actual dates. If you can't do the math in your head, use the TimeAndDate calculator. I did. You can then punch the year into Wikipedia and, if you want, use the Jimmy Carter Library of events to help narrow things down.
So what the heck was going on?
I'll tell you: the Hostage Crisis and the Soviets invading Afghanistan. The timeline is like this:
- Nov 4 1979 the Hostage Crisis begins. That's when Carter's 1000 day spike more or less starts.
- Dec 27 1979 the Soviets invade Afghanistan. Friday, Nov 30 is when Carter's dark green line breaks the "average" dotted line."
- Jan 25 his graph hits the high point of that spike towards the end of his term. After that, it's all downhill.
- By March 10 there's the big drop--nothing I can tell caused that--but remember that American audiences were being given a running count each day the hostages were held on ABC's Nightline.
- On April 24th the rescue mission failed. That's the trough right before 1200.
- Sunday, May 4th, Carter gets that 1200 spike (still well below average at 38%) That was probably the end of the Carter administration--whoever had run against him.
And What About Reagan?
Reagan and Romney have a few similarities. From here:
The 1980 campaign was not a contest between two overwhelming Party favorites. President Jimmy Carter was facing trouble at home and abroad. The country was in the midst of an economic recession under the Carter administration. Each day voters turned on there television sets to find news stories of the American hostages in Iran. Carter had gained favor with the public in several foreign policy accomplishments, but these two major issues had severely cut into his approval ratings. Ronald Reagan had a nagging issue of his own. He could not seem to gain the confidence of the growing anti-Carter movement. One poll asked which candidate voters were "personally interested in or excited about." Eleven percent chose Reagan. Carter received only nine percent.
There's also the next-in-line thing: Reagan had run initially in 1976 and lost to incumbent Gerald Ford. He, like Mitt was also the governor of a fairly liberal state. These are not insignificant attributes: being next in line is pretty important historically. Being a governor is a key bit of executive experience that, for example, Santorum lacks.
So what was the track record? Here is the graph:
The graph is from a Forbes article which makes the very case that, at this stage in the game, Carter was much further ahead than Obama is from Romney!
That Said ...
However ... while it's very true that Carter was hurt, perhaps first and foremost, by the economy, Carter had a fatal problem with foreign policy--one that Obama doesn't have. In fact, aggressive foreign policy (the Osama-kill) is a major part of Obama's 2012 strategy. The Carter spike around 1000 days has been described as the "rally-round-the-flag" effect. While I'm not a historian, this is at least plausible.
The Real Problem
The real problem is that once Reagan was "introduced" people really liked him. Yes, he had problems getting started and yes, he had some presumptions (that he was too old) working against him. But ultimately? People liked him. Romney seems to have the opposite problem:
Month-to-month, Romney’s share of the vote has been declining even as the field narrows, with the conservatives drawing a clear majority of the votes cast in March (aided as well by poor showings by Ron Paul in the Deep South) despite not even being on the ballot in Virginia.Furthermore, where Reagan was charismatic, Romney is plagued by being seen as robotic.
What Do I Think?
I think that there are two major problems with the Romney-is-Reagan. The first is that while the economy is similar to a degree the foreign policy/national humiliation element is missing. Carter both gained and lost popularity due to a very specific set of events that are not in play here. The second is that, simply put, Romney doesn't seem likely to become The Great Communicator. I mean, he might, right? You never know--but his current M.O. is to avoid the press rather that manipulate them. Romney doesn't seem likely to "Win the War on Terror" (the closest analog I can think of to the Cold War).
Can you imagine an issue with Reagan with a dog on the roof of his car?
I didn't think so.