Getting Cartered

Like Jimmy Carter in 1980, Donald Trump has been dealt a challenging hand in his reelection year

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— President Trump’s approval numbers have remained steady or have even improved in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

— That said, the potential threat that the combined health and economic crisis poses to his reelection odds is obvious.

— Trump may find himself in the position of Jimmy Carter 40 years ago: unable to catch a break in a reelection year defined by bleak developments.

The Echoes of 1980

Even though the personal demeanors of the two men are dramatically different, Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump share a lot of similarities.

Both emerged from very crowded presidential primary fields to win surprising nominations by positioning themselves apart from the power centers of their respective parties. They then triumphed in closely contested general elections over more establishment-oriented rivals from the other party (Gerald Ford and Hillary Clinton), each of whom were strongly pushed by more ideological challengers in their own primaries (Ronald Reagan and Bernie Sanders).

And now Trump has yet another similarity with Carter, one he most assuredly does not want: Trump, like Carter, has been dealt a challenging hand in a reelection year.

In 1980, Carter was unable to surmount challenges both foreign and domestic.

Carter faced the Iran hostage crisis: Iranian fundamentalists, who had seized control of Iran in 1979, stormed the U.S. embassy and took dozens of Americans hostage following Carter’s decision to allow the deposed shah medical treatment and refuge in the United States. A failed rescue attempt in late April 1980 only added to Carter’s political woes, as did a bad economy: Second-quarter GDP growth contracted by about 8%, one of the worst quarters in post-World War II history. As Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz noted a couple of weeks ago, second quarter GDP growth can be an important number in predicting elections.

Carter would go on to lose to Reagan decisively in November 1980, 51%-41% and 489-49 in the Electoral College, although the race seemed like it would be significantly closer for much of the election cycle.

Trump, like Carter, is facing a crisis, this time in the form of the coronavirus, and the restrictions governments across the country and across the world have put into place to combat it are going to have significant negative effects on the economy, at least in the short term. It seems quite possible that second-quarter GDP growth this year will set a record for the worst quarter in the post-World War II era. The postwar low was roughly -10% in the first quarter of 1958; some projections suggest GDP could contract by two or three times that historic low in the second quarter of this year (the second quarter just started yesterday and runs through the end of June).

Given that the strength of the economy was one of the president’s top reelection selling points, a massive contraction in the economy naturally weakens that argument, even given the circumstances.

But it may also be that perceptions of the economy aren’t actually driving voting patterns as significantly in this era: The president’s approval rating arguably should have been higher for much of his term based on relative peace and prosperity; it may be that going forward, the president’s approval should be lower than it might end up being, at least based on what one might expect from history.

There is also the possibility that the president could endure a significant dip in public approval as the economy worsens, but bounce back closer to the election if the public believes conditions are improving.

Beyond the public health and economic uncertainties, there are other unknowable questions of the election: How are the conventions run (which Louis Jacobson explored in the Crystal Ball earlier this week)? How hard is it for people to vote in the fall? If turnout is substantially higher or lower than 2016, who does that benefit? What are the third party options, and how much support do they get? These are all important variables.

As it stands now, the president’s national approval rating is up a bit in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. He was at 47.6% in the RealClearPolitics average as of Wednesday afternoon, up about three points from a couple of weeks ago, just as the reality of the public health emergency was setting in. Given the president’s advantages in 2016 in the most important states, if he’s at 47%-48% approval on Election Day, he probably will be well-positioned to win. So it’s hard to look at the numbers right now and see the president at a major disadvantage.

Trump also continues to enjoy something that Carter did not: party unity. Carter faced a serious challenge from Ted Kennedy in the 1980 primary; Trump, meanwhile, has waltzed through this primary season.

However, the president’s improved approval rating may be something of a rally around the flag boost, which we’ve seen before in history. Carter’s approval shot up to the high 50s in the Gallup poll in the midst of the hostage crisis after it was in the low 30s before it, a massive boost that would revert to the low 30s by the summer. Henry Olsen, a conservative Washington Post columnist, noted earlier this week that Trump’s recent bump is not only modest compared to past presidents, but also to other world leaders.

Perceptions of this president may just be largely static (it is worth noting that Barack Obama’s approval rating was also fairly static during his presidency, at least compared to past presidents).

Trump, like Carter and the Iran hostages, will also face questions about how he has handled this crisis. For Carter, the failed late April rescue mission “reinforced the impression that Carter… was a bumbler, clueless about how to govern,” wrote presidential historian William E. Leuchtenburg in The American Presidency, his survey of 20th century American presidents.

We just don’t know how Americans ultimately will react to the federal government’s response to the coronavirus; a lot of this of course depends on how bad the situation becomes and how quickly it is resolved. There also remains the scary possibility that COVID-19 will appear conquered in the summer only to reemerge in the fall.

Certainly the president has provided his political enemies with potentially damaging video clips of him downplaying the threat of coronavirus over the past couple of months; Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has been highlighting these comments and will continue to do so. Beyond the words, the public may also judge the substance of the Trump administration’s response to the crisis to have been lacking. But again, we cannot just assume this will be the case.

Biden himself has largely been sidelined during the crisis, confined to his home in Delaware and trying to remain engaged, with mixed results. That said, presidential campaigns featuring incumbents, like this one, are more about the incumbent than the challenger.

Biden still technically has to get through his primary, and the postponement of primaries has allowed his rival, Bernie Sanders, to avoid what would have been double-digit losses in delegate-rich Ohio and Georgia the last couple of weeks. Biden has seemed to benefit from higher turnout in this year’s primary; will lower turnout, which seems likely moving forward given both the state of the race and the coronavirus crisis, advantage Sanders? Wisconsin, which is still slated to vote Tuesday, will provide some clues: Sanders won it by double digits in 2016, but a Sanders win this time would be much more surprising.

Biden still holds a lead of nearly 300 delegates, which is a commanding position in a Democratic primary. Barring some sort of massive new development, Biden remains on track to be the Democratic nominee.

Outside of advanced age, the Ronald Reagan of 1980 and the Joe Biden of 2020 don’t obviously bear much resemblance to one another.

Certainly Reagan, one of the great orators of American political history, was a significantly better speaker than Biden.

But while Reagan would eventually become the modern face of the Republican Party, in 1980 he was more of an outsider ideologue, pushing the GOP further to the right than some of the party’s leaders preferred. In that sense, Sanders (if he somehow got the nomination) would be a better comparison to the Reagan of 1980 than Biden, who is running on a liberal platform but is closer to the party mainstream, and party elites, than either Sanders is now or Reagan was four decades ago (former New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus compared Sanders to Reagan in an interesting piece published around Super Tuesday).

Reagan also was a more imperfect candidate than perhaps popularly remembered; besides his ideological positioning on the right wing of the party, Reagan was no stranger to the bizarre comments that Biden sometimes makes: For instance, Reagan was ridiculed in the 1980 campaign for arguing that trees are a major cause of air pollution.

Despite whatever flaws he brought to the campaign, Reagan delivered when the stakes were the highest, specifically in the debate with Carter in the closing days of the campaign. Biden will be tested too.

Conclusion

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the 1980 campaign came in that single debate between Reagan and Carter, when Reagan asked viewers, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

When Reagan asked that question, presidential historian Leuchtenburg wrote, Reagan “knew that millions of Americans, in a year of so many bleak tidings at home and overseas, would not find it possible to give the answer Carter needed.”

For much of his presidency, Donald Trump could have posed that question to voters and gotten a favorable response from many, even some of those who disliked him personally.

But, unfortunately, 2020 has been a year of “bleak tidings” for the United States, at least so far. This parallel to 1980 poses a real challenge to an incumbent president whose reelection chances were very much in question even during sunnier times.