By asking Americans to consider whether or not they were "better off than they were four years ago," Ronald Reagan deftly turned the 1980 election into a referendum on the Carter years.
People tend to forget, but up until the incumbent president and the former California governor faced off in their one and only debate, Carter held the lead in most of the national polls. Reagan used the debate and the question to turn the tide of the campaign, getting the voters to focus on Carter's mistakes and Carter's ineffectiveness in stemming the tide of bad economic and diplomatic news.
Fast forward to today when, despite a comparably bad economic picture and continued White House mismanagement of the economy, many Republicans continue to believe instinctively that Barack Obama is headed for a second term. They perceive the GOP field to be weak overall and do not believe the party's air war and ground game will be sufficient to compete against what the Democrats and their union allies will be able to do to get voters to the polls.
In politics such concerns are reasonable, but concerns do not determine outcomes; actions do. The GOP's continued fascination with who among their number is the most electable is a formula for defeat. It sets up a race that tries to match star power against star power—and Barack Obama wins that fight. Should the Republicans start to focus on who has the best ideas on how to win the future and improve America, which is what the Carter-Reagan contest of 1980 actually ended up being about—then they may feel their fortunes and their spirits rise.
They would also do well to examine the latest poll from Resurgent Republic, the survey operation run by a group of high-level GOPers including former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, which finds that "70 percent of voters say the country is on the wrong track," the highest that critical number has been since they first started polling in April 2009.
According to the survey, voters believe the country is worse off since Obama took office. Here are just a few key findings from the poll:
- Compared to January 2009, voters say the following things are worse: the federal government's financial situation (67 percent), the economy (61 percent), the federal government's ability to solve problems (60 percent), and America's standing in the world (50 percent).
- Obama remains upside down among independents. These voters disapprove of his overall job performance, 53 to 43 percent, and his handling of the economy, 62 to 35 percent.
- By 53 to 37 percent, independents believe Obama is more interested in "campaigning against Republicans in Congress to win re-election" than "working with Republicans to get things done."
- Obama's re-election numbers are stuck in the low 40s:
- 42 percent say Obama deserves re-election (33 percent of independents and 28 percent of swing state independents).
- 42 percent support Obama on the generic ballot (32 percent of independents and 27 percent of swing state independents).
Apparently, America already believes it is less well off than it was four years ago when Obama came into office. What the GOP has to do now—and it has a year in which to do it—is find a way to tap in to that sentiment in a manner that makes the electoral math work to its advantage. Whether or not it will remains an open question.