Tuesday, May 29, 2012

It's beginning to look like 1980 again

After you've followed a few presidential election campaigns, a sense of deja vu is easy to grasp. In an era of campaign consultants-for-hire, electronic media droning on incessantly and rising influence of money in politics, campaigns begin to look alike.

But this year, I've had a feeling, an intuition if you could call it that, a sense of having seen this before. The 2012 presidential race is shaping up to remind me of that race 32 years ago when an unpopular but earnest first-term Democratic president faced a tough fight against a lesser-known and somewhat underestimated Republican. Just as in 1980, the economy was a mess, and many of the Democratic administration's programs seemed like overreach or naivete. And the Republican opponent was regarded by many Democrats as a lightweight the voters would never trust.

Much is different about 2012. President Obama can gloat about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. President Jimmy Carter was frustrated by the capture of U.S. embassy personnel by Iranian militants and by the failure of his rescue mission. Carter's onerous "stagflation," a combination of rising prices and stagnant job creation, was painful but not nearly as devastating as the recession that began before Obama took office and persists today. His critics saw Jimmy Carter as a country bumpkin way over his head in the White House, but even Carter's low approval ratings cannot compare with the visceral hatred of Obama by some of his critics. Ronald Reagan was considered by some to be nothing more than an actor mouthing the words provided by advisers and speechwriters, but his oratorical skills were among the best of any 20th century president. Mitt Romney cannot match Reagan in oratory — not by a long shot — but he can deliver a speech and usually can avoid mistakes in off-the-cuff remarks.

Pundits tell us that the election will hinge on a handful of key swing states, of which North Carolina is one. In 2008, Obama's team organized North Carolina and turned out the vote. He'll need that effort again but is unlikely to get comparable results. I'll be surprised if Obama carries North Carolina again, but I was a little surprised by his 2008 success. The youth vote is not as enamored of Obama as it was four years ago. And the black vote is not as likely to turn out as it did in 2008 to elect an African-American president; in 2012, that's already been done, so the impetus to do the job isn't as great.

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