Will 2008 Be Another 1980?

Andrew E. Busch

August 1, 2008

Political scientists and analysts are constantly on the lookout for plausible historical analogy for whatever election is currently ongoing. The election of 2008 is no exception.

Some commentators, including Michael Barone and William Kristol, have pointed to 1976 as a possible parallel (as have I). In 1976, general trends were moving against Republicans (Watergate and the Nixon pardon, the 1974 Democratic congressional blowout, weak Republican voter identification), but a Democratic presidential nominee with thin credentials was unable to take full advantage of those trends and barely won the general election.

Many others have posited that 1980 is the better parallel. A very unpopular incumbent ran against an eloquent challenger who also enjoyed a number of big generic advantages. However, public reservations about the challenger kept the race close until the end. When those concerns were allayed, the dam broke and the challenger won in a landslide. In this view, voters’ reservations about Obama have kept the race close in 2008, but all that is required is for him to demonstrate that he is a safe choice and the Democrats’ generic advantages will produce a blowout.

This scenario, too, is plausible, but it has been so often repeated that it is worthwhile to examine more closely some of the scenario’s shortcomings.

First—and this caveat applies to any attempt to assert an historical parallel, whether to 1980, 1976, or some other year—historical analogies can be quite useful analytical devices, but no two elections are exactly the same. With different candidates, campaign staffs, communications technologies, and electorates, one should never expect an exact repeat of an earlier election.

Second, there is a crucial difference between 1980 and 2008. While there is a very unpopular incumbent president in 2008, he is not running for reelection. John McCain will undoubtedly be weighed down by George W. Bush’s problems and the associated drag of having an “R” behind his name, he will simply not bear the full brunt of public dissatisfaction with Bush. Not only is he not the incumbent, but he has been engaged in a number of long-running disagreements with Bush over the last eight years. Obama and Democrats have been engaged in a serious attempt to tie McCain to Bush, claiming McCain is running for “Bush’s third term,” but such efforts have thus far fallen somewhat short. Remember that in 1968, Hubert Humphrey, vice president of the very unpopular Lyndon Johnson, nearly won election despite being much more closely tied to Johnson than McCain is to Bush.

Finally, it is not clear that Obama will be able to allay public reservations in the same way that Reagan did in 1980, partly due to the different nature of the concerns. In Reagan’s case, the great public reservation was that Reagan was trigger-happy, an extremist who might plunge into war without due caution. In short, this concern boiled down to a matter of temperament. Since Reagan was not in reality a crazed warmonger, it was not at all difficult for him to allay those concerns when he was finally given the opportunity to stand side-by-side with Jimmy Carter in a debate. Voters could observe his temperament, and they could see that, whatever Reagan was, he was not what Carter claimed he was.

Public concerns about Obama, on the other hand, have primarily to do with his dearth of experience, and secondarily with his apparent shallowness and poor choice of associates. No matter how many times he stands next to McCain in a debate, Obama will not suddenly acquire vast new experience or depth, nor will he expunge his twenty-year friendship with Jeremiah Wright or his dalliance with the terrorist William Ayers. Even if he could allay public concerns in this way, there is no guarantee he would. Reagan could persuade the fence-sitters that he was safe because he was safe; it is not at all clear that Obama actually is safe, so it can hardly be taken for granted that he will be able to prove that he is.

It remains conceivable that 2008 will end up being another 1980, with a big Obama win, big congressional coattails, and dramatic policy shifts resulting. If so, though, it won’t be because it was inevitable.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.