Darren Richardson

Oct. 10, 2010

He’s on a roll right now, but is time on Mitt Romney’s side?

Not if we compare 2012 to 1980, as some pundits have been fond of doing ever since Romney’s debate performance last week in Denver.

That’s because in 1980, the presidential election was held exactly one week after the only debate between Republican challenger Ronald Reagan and Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter.

Although Reagan had led the incumbent by several points in most polls taken in early October, Carter had started to close the gap in late October. He was down by 3 points in one major poll and up by 3 points in another when he and Reagan squared off on the debate stage Oct. 28 in Cleveland.

But by a margin of 44-36 as measured in a CBS post-debate poll, most viewers thought Reagan won the debate, and voter preference polls taken after the debate reflected that perception. Reagan led Carter 45-40, with independent John B. Anderson polling at 10 percent, in an ABC News Harris Poll taken Oct. 29-31.

A week later, Reagan won the presidency by almost 10 percentage points in the popular vote, getting 50.7 percent of the vote to Carter's 41 percent, Anderson’s 6.6 percent and Libertarian Ed Clark’s 1.06 percent.

If the election had been held today, just one week after the debate between Romney and President Obama, we might expect some of Romney’s debate momentum to carry over into the voting booth. But in contrast with 1980, when only six full days elapsed between the Reagan-Carter debate and Election Day, 33 full days will have elapsed between the Oct. 3 debate in Denver and Nov. 6, Election Day 2012.

Not only that, there will have been two more presidential debates and a vice presidential debate in the interim. And as much as the Romney campaign tries to wish away the fact that Gary Johnson could cost the GOP in swing states, Johnson is on a pace to exceed any Libertarian presidential nominee’s vote total since the party was founded in the early 1970s.

Unlike Reagan, who challenged Anderson head on and won the battle, Romney has waged a political war against Johnson, attempting to keep the former New Mexico governor off the ballot in as many states as possible. That’s not Reaganesque, that’s just plain cowardly.

Romney may be in a better position than he was a week ago, but Republicans are dreaming if they think the former Massachusetts governor is on his way to mimicking Reagan’s path to the White House.

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The full debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Oct, 28, 1980 YouTube

Full transcript of debate between Ronald Reagan and John Anderson, Sept. 21, 1980, UCSB, The American Presidency Project

The full debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, Oct. 3, 2012 YouTube

Carter, Reagan attempt to assess impact of debate, Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 30, 1980

Barack Obama’s official campaign website

Mitt Romney’s official campaign website

Gary Johnson’s official campaign website

Additional resources linked to within text.


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