Presidential election has many parallels to 1980

President Jimmy Carter and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan participate in a presidential debate Oct. 28, 1980.

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — Every presidential election has unique aspects. In 2020, those are the current occupant of the White House and the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this campaign also has striking similarities with the one 40 years ago, and President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Thursday’s scheduled debate is just the latest example. In 1980, as in 2020, an unpopular first-term incumbent was struggling for reelection against not only his rival but the impact from a historic event that began overseas.

The 1980 incumbent was Democrat Jimmy Carter, his Republican rival was former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, and the campaign was overshadowed by events in Iran, just like the pandemic from China has dominated the current campaign.

That September, Carter withdrew from the first scheduled debate because it included not just Reagan but independent candidate John Anderson. One month later, Carter and Reagan did debate — with disastrous results for the incumbent.

Here are some other parallels:

n Both presidents were political flukes. Few gave much chance to Carter, a little known one-term Georgia governor running in a big Democratic field. That was likewise true for Trump, the widely known reality TV star and real estate scion, who beat an array of Republican heavyweights.

n Both were narrowly elected over unique rivals. Carter won by a total of 18,000 votes in Ohio and Hawaii over President Gerald Ford, the nation’s only non-elected president. Trump won by a combined 77,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first major party female nominee.

n Challengers presented age issue. Reagan, a two-time presidential also-ran approaching his 70th birthday, was initially considered too old to be president. Only one prior president, Dwight Eisenhower, had reached 70 in office, and that was three months before he retired.

Reagan went on to win two terms and was nearly 78 when he left office. Trump, the first president over 70 when inaugurated, is now 74. But Biden will be 78 just weeks after the election — and 82 four years later.

n Incumbents sought reelection after difficult presidencies. Inexperience hampered both Carter and Trump in office. Carter had constant clashes with the Democrats’ liberal base. Trump has governed without seeking to broaden his conservative base.

n Woes from abroad impacted daily life in the U.S. Carter’s reelection campaign was crippled by the fallout from Iran’s overthrow of its monarchy and a resulting limit on oil exports that triggered a domestic gasoline shortage, record inflation and, ultimately, an economic recession.

Then, Iranian militants took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held more than 60 American diplomats for over a year, making Carter look weak by rebuffing his efforts to free them.

Trump’s biggest problems have come from his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic that began in China and the resulting economic recession.

n Wings of the presidents’ parties opposed reelection. Their election year political problems were different. Carter, more centrist than many top Democrats, had to surmount a primary challenge from Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, leader of the party’s liberal wing.

Trump has a united Republican Party, minus moderates who never supported him and either backed Biden or stayed neutral. But he never broadened his political base, and his average job approval never reached 50 percent.

n Both were faulted for running incompetent White Houses. Carter’s top aides were fellow Georgians with little Washington experience, while Trump’s impetuousness produced a revolving door staff, including four chiefs of staff and four national security advisers in less than four years.

n Security leaders broke ranks. Many longtime Democratic national security specialists supported Reagan, contending Carter’s foreign policy was too soft toward adversaries. In 2020, many longtime GOP national security officials and military chiefs are backing Biden, criticizing Trump for cozying up to autocrats and straining ties with long-time U.S. allies.

n Voter patterns changed. While covering the 1980 campaign for The Baltimore Sun, I met many voters who said they voted for Carter in 1976 but were disappointed and were switching to Reagan. Virtually none was switching from Ford to Carter.

Campaign accounts this year indicate a similar pattern: voters who said they gambled on Trump in 2016 but now back Biden, hardly any switching from Clinton to Trump.

n Campaigns underestimated rivals. Before their only debate, Carter’s staff denigrated Reagan, whom they thought would be exposed as stupid. Trump did something similar with Biden.

n Polls pointed toward challengers. In 1980, polls showed a very tight race before the two debated a week before the election. Afterwards, Reagan pulled ahead and won by 10 points. This year, Biden had a solid lead going into their first debate. Afterwards, it increased.

Despite these campaign similarities, there are striking contrasts between the two men. Carter was a serious, hands-on president, done in by stubbornness, persistent refusal to consider political implications, and ultimately by events beyond his control.

Trump is a showman who governs by instinct, done in by lack of governmental knowledge, failure to take needed steps to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and a seeming propensity to govern based on the political impact on his own fortunes.

But the end results — like the two campaigns — may prove similar.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may send emails to carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com. Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2020 The Dallas Morning News.

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