Presidential Polls: How the 1980 Presidential Race Could Predict Who Wins Election 2012


Economic growth is slow, unemployment is over 7.5%, there is turmoil in the Middle East and a Democrat sits in the White House, all with an election rapidly approaching.

This could be a headline for today; or just as easily from 1980.

Throughout this election cycle TV talking heads and political pundits have tried to draw various parallels between these two points in our history. There are certainly parallels that can be drawn, but the question is how accurately do they actually line up.

The America of 1980 was a different place. The solidly blue West Coast of today had been solid red in the election of 1976. The now largely red south, had been blue. States which are now practically 'gimmes' for each party, like New York, Texas, and California were considered the swing states at the time.

Electoral Map from 1976

In fact, the New York Times did a series on the nine states considered to be the swing states of the time in the weeks leading up to the decisive October 28 debate, which most credit as the tipping point which lead to Reagan's landslide victory - with an electoral vote of 489 to 49.

The "Crucial States"

As they were labeled in the NY Times series, included:

California — October 6, 1980 Texas — October 8, 1980 Pennsylvania — October 10, 1980 Illinois — October 13, 1980 Ohio — October 15, 1980 New Jersey — October 16, 1980 Florida — October 19, 1980 New York — October 21, 1980 Michigan — October 23, 1980

Just days before the sole debate of the 1980 election (Carter having boycotted the first debate due to the presence of the Independent candidate), a Gallup national poll had President Jimmy Carter at 47% to Reagan's 39%. But looking at a breakdown of the "crucial states" indicated a closer race: 

The polls in crucial swing states indicated that the race was fairly tight, with many undecided voters. California was the only one that they NY Times labeled a "likely" win for Reagan.

Another factor of interest was the breakdown of party affiliation:

*FL and MI were not provided.

Reading through both the voter and pundit commentary provided in the series, you hear many similarities to today:

"I'll stick, vote for [the Incumbent]. He learned something, maybe he'll be pretty good in the next four years."

"...not that [the challenger's] going to do a better job; but he can't do a worse job."

"[The Incumbent] has familiarity with the Presidency which we need at this difficult time"

50% of [the Chanllenger's] supporters cited an anti-[Incumbent] reason for their choice.

27% said they feared economy would get worse under [the Incumbent]

30% feared [the Challenger] would get country into a war.

The problem is apathy on the part of certain demographics of [the Incumbent's] supporters.

In the end, Carter lost every single one of these states, and many that he carried in the 1976 election, including Texas. Other than Bill Clinton, no Democrat in the 20th century managed to win the White House without winning Texas.

Electoral Map from 1980


What is the same?

Both President Obama and then President Jimmy Carter have approval ratings below 50%; although President Obama is currently closer to the magic line.

They each had to deal with higher than desirable unemployment numbers, a sluggish economy and uncertainty in the Middle East leading into the elections.

Apathy and concerns about getting out the vote are consistent themes. 

What is different?

Probably the most striking difference is in the number of "undecideds."  The 1980 New York Times series shows an average of 20% of voters as undecided in 1980. Whereas most current polls reflect undecideds as being in the low single digits. Traditionally, undecideds tend to break for the challenger. So fewer undecideds give the President's challenger a smaller pool of voters to that he can win over.

President Obama's charisma is closer to Reagan than Carter. This allows him to leverage "likability" to offset the negatives some see in his record.

The current incidents in the Middle East are fairly recent and likely won't be a consideration with the average voter until after the election; if ever.

Is there a lesson in history?

Yes there is, though perhaps the parallels are not as strong as President Obama's detractors might hope.

Despite the heavily debated polls, given the state of the economy and the fact that most Americans believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction, the game is not yet over. As 1980 shows, even some of the states that are already being counted on the the Incumbent's tally sheet are not necessarily untouchable. Like Reagan, Romney's chances will likely depend on his performance in the debates. There is a small percentage of Americans who will likely be the ultimate deciders in this election, and history shows us that they are mainly waiting to see if the "alternative" will be acceptable.