Romney's Not Reagan, Obama's Not Carter, and 2012 Isn't 1980

The Romney campaign seems to have been so focused on the referendum theory that they neglected to introduce their candidate to the public.

By + More

One meme you hear over and over again from the right is that this election is a rerun of 1980, that Barack Obama is reincarnation of Jimmy Carter. There are any number of problems with this comparison, but one is often understated: Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan.

Steve Benen at the Maddow blog did a good job yesterday dismantling this historical parallel. He was prompted by the Washington Examiner's Byron York quoting of a Romney official to the effect that Team Romney sees the campaign playing 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."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Interesting fact, which came as a surprise to me: Carter didn't lead for much of the race. Beyond that, as Greg Sargent points out (h/t Benen):

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.

All of this is true but there's another factor at play, and it speaks to a fundamental flaw of the Romney campaign. Simply put (and to his credit Sargent notes this), Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan. Say what you will about the substances of Reagan's politics and policies, he was a gifted politician. Not for nothing do they still call him the "Great Communicator." Romney is at best a wooden communicator and utterly lacks Reagan's likability and charm.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Can Mitt Romney Best Barack Obama on Foreign Policy?]

This is an important point because it often gets lost in the referendum theory of presidential campaigns, which seems to have animated Romney's campaign strategy. It goes like this: Re-election races are referenda on the incumbent. But that theory misses a couple of crucial facts of history: The two modern presidents who lost re-election, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, were beaten by once-in-a-generation political talents, Reagan and Bill Clinton.

The Romney campaign seems to have been so focused on the referendum theory that they neglected to introduce their candidate to the public, a task which the Obama campaign happily spent millions of dollars doing for them.

  • Robert Schlesinger: No, Bush Didn’t Keep Us Safe
  • Take the U.S. News Poll: Will Barack Obama's Convention Bounce Last?
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.