Could Mitt Romney’s 2012 election hopes follow the path of Ronald Reagan’s resounding victory in 1980?
The answer is yes, but not in the way many GOP backers are touting it.
In fact, while the common Republican narrative is that Reagan came suddenly storming from behind in October, a careful examination of the final months of 1980 demonstrates the polls looked a lot more like … well, like 2012.
In January of 1980, Republican challenger Ronald Reagan trailed incumbent President Jimmy Carter by over 30 percentage points. A late poll by Gallup, shortly before 1980’s momentum-swinging presidential debate on Oct. 28, claimed Carter was still leading Reagan by a margin of 47 percent to 39 percent.
Yet Reagan went on to steamroll Carter only a week after the debate, carrying 44 states on the way to a decisive 489-49 victory in the Electoral College and a better than 9-percent margin in the popular vote. The swing is often touted by GOP strategists as the example of how quickly fortunes can change.
Not so fast.
That single Gallup poll, when compared to others at the time, was clearly an outlier. An analysis of several polls by George Washington University political scientist John Sides shows Reagan made his biggest surge in June and July, and from late August onward, the race was virtually neck-and-neck.
“Carter now leads Reagan 45 to 42 percent, according to the Gallup Poll released yesterday,” reported Martin Schram of the Washington Post on Oct. 28, 1980, a significant difference from the earlier 47-39 poll.
Schram also reported an ABC News poll that had Reagan leading, 45-42, and Time gave Carter a 42-41 lead.
Sides’ analysis shows most polls gave Reagan a narrow lead following the convention fallout, a lead which only blew open after the October debate.
In 2012, the picture looks similarly close after the dust has settled from the party conventions:
- Gallup has Obama leading Romney 48-46.
- Rasmussen Reports has Obama 47, Romney 46, though Romney had been leading in the previous two polls.
- In the Politico-George Washington University poll, Obama leads 50 percent to 47 percent, which is within the margin of error.
- The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll has Obama up, 50-44.
- The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll also has Obama leading, 50-44.
- The Pew Research Center suggests Obama is up, 51-43.
The bad news for Romney is that unlike Reagan’s come-from-behind victory, which had already closed the gap or even taken a lead by September, Romney still has a way to go.
“It’s a stretch,” Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, who covered the 1980 campaign for The Washington Post, told Politico. “It’s hard to make a Carter out of Obama, and it’s even harder to make a Reagan out of Romney. I don’t mean any disrespect to Romney, but I think he’s run a poor campaign. You can’t say anything within this close a margin is over. I don’t do that. But he’s got a lot more to do at this point to win than Reagan had to do.”
The biggest problems Romney faces is that unlike Carter, Obama’s approval ratings currently hover around 50 percent (compared to Carter, who struggled to get 50-percent approval from members of his own party and carried only a 37-percent rating nationally), and polls have shown the electorate much less likely to blame Obama for the poor economy than they were to blame Carter.
All the polls from 1980, however, show that after the Oct. 28 debates, Reagan rode a surge of momentum and never looked back.
Such late-season swings, as it turns out, are not that uncommon:
- In 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was down by 12 points in early October but nearly closed the gap, before a narrow loss to Richard Nixon.
- In 1976, Gerald Ford closed a 10-point deficit and actually held the lead in Gallup’s final poll, before actually losing to Carter.
- In 1988, George Bush engineered a 25-point swing, as Gallup found Michael Dukakis leading by 17 points after the Democratic National Convention, only to lose to Bush by 8 percent.
- Bush charged back again, from 9 points down in mid-September 1992, to tie with Bill Clinton by the end of October, though Clinton eventually prevailed.
- In 2000, Vice President Al Gore wiped out a 7-point deficit in the final 10 days of the election and actually won the popular vote, though he lost the Electoral College.
- In October 2004, John Kerry wiped 9 points away from George W. Bush’s 11-point lead in late September, falling just 2 points short of taking the popular vote.
Whether Romney can find a similar surge to pull away from a close race – like Reagan did in 1980 – remains to be seen.
“Romney’s not Reagan,” charged Ed Rollins, who ran Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign and managed Michele Bachmann’s bid last year, “and that’s a big difference.”
Republican power broker Charlie Black, who advises Romney and played key roles in three Reagan presidential campaigns, told Politico a close race means anything can still happen.
“In most races, up and down the ballot, challengers are behind the incumbent until close to the end,” he said. “It’s entirely possible that Romney could be slightly behind until late in the game and then come from behind and win by a significant margin. … What  should teach them is you don’t need to panic if you’re down in the first half of September and first half of October. … If the incumbent’s under 50, then you’re in the race.”