The Myth of Jimmy Carter’s “Eight-Point Lead” Over Reagan

Paul Bedard talks to a Romney advisor who has not yet figured out that candidates are supposed to lower expectations for debates.

“People are holding back until the debates,” said a Romney advisor. “Because of that the debates become a breakpoint for us.”

In 1980, Reagan was trailing Carter in the polls 39 percent to 47 percent until their debate when the Gipper showed in his performance that he was up for being president and could be trusted with the keys to the nation.


You see the point of this. Don’t worry, voters! Keep the checkbook open, donors! We’re gonna break this thing open just like the Gipper did!

One problem: The idea that Reagan reversed an 8-point deficit with one debate is a myth. Even if it were true, it wouldn’t be entirely applicable to Romney. But it’s not true.


1) Before Carter and Reagan met in Cleveland, polls suggsted a closer race, and some polling suggested that Reagan was up. “Carter now leads Reagan 45 to 42 percent, according to the Gallup Poll released yesterday,” reported Martin Schram at the Washington Post on October 28 – hours before the debate began. “Independent John Anderson now has 9 percent, with 5 percent undecided.” And Schram also reported the results of the ABC News poll: Reagan 45, Carter 42, Anderson 10. Another contemporary poll, in Time, gave Carter a 42-41 lead over Reagan, with Anderson getting much of the remainder.


2) There was only one Carter-Reagan debate, and it took place one week before the election. The voting period lasts longer now – early voting and absentee balloting will be underway in much of the country by mid-October – but the first Romney-Obama debate is on October 3, and the last will be on October 22, two weeks before the election.

3) There was a high-polling third party candidate in 1980. John Anderson! He’s the guy whose name is always left out of the 1980 poll retrospectives. Anderson, a liberal Republican congressman, became a vessel for liberal anti-Carter voters. He pulled 5.7 million votes, and altered Carter’s final stretch strategy just as Ralph Nader would alter Al Gore’s strategy 20 years later. Carter lost Massachusetts by less than 4000 votes; Anderson won 382,539 votes there. Carter lost Arkansas by 5,123 votes; Anderson won 22,468 votes there. Reagan would have won without the spoiler, but the spoiler pumped up Reagan’s margin and electoral college vote.

I actually agree with A Romney Adviser; if Romney clearly outmatches the president next week, he has a chance to reset the election, just as John Kerry reset it in 2004. But conservatives have internalized a few fantasies about the Reagan win. They over-rate what happened, and whether it can be replicated.

If you want more 1980 mythbusting delivered to your door, consult Nate Cohn.