“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
That was Ronald Reagan’s knockout punch to then-Pres. Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election. Reagan famously put the question to the audience in the candidates' final debate, held one week before the election. He won in a landslide.
For the past week, the Romney-Ryan camp has been driving the are-you-better-off message. In his acceptance speech last Thursday, Governor Romney pointed out that “every president since the Great Depression who came before the American people asking for a second term could look back at the last four years and say with satisfaction, ‘You’re better off than you were four years ago,’ except Jimmy Carter, and except this president.” Paul Ryan echoed that sentiment in North Carolina on Monday. Polls suggest it should be a winning tactic for Republicans. In a recent AP poll, only 28% of respondents claimed they were better off than they were four years ago; the rest said they were either the same or worse. Politico reported on Monday that, according to a survey by The Hill, 52% of voters say that the nation is in worse shape than it was in September of 2008, while 31% believe the nation is in better shape, and 15% say "about the same."
This is just one of many ways in which the 2012 presidential election has been compared to the 1980 race, when another personally popular Democratic president with an abysmal economic record and terrible poll numbers got his clock cleaned by an aged but reassuringly competent Republican ex-governor, but the more apt analogy may be 1992. We’re technically not in a recession like we were in 1980; rather, this election will take place amid a lethargic economic recovery, just like the '92 election. The things-are-getting-better argument didn’t work for President Bush then, and it’s not working for President Obama now. Just like they were in 1992, Americans are dissatisfied with the incumbent president’s economic performance, and their opinions are unlikely to change before Election Day.
The similarities don’t end there: Obama won the 2008 popular vote by almost the same margin, percentage-wise, that George Bush won with in '88. Despite having a net-negative approval rating—more people disapprove of the job he’s doing as president than approve—Obama still gets high marks on foreign policy; Bush enjoyed similar trust on foreign affairs (though successfully driving Iraq out of Kuwait is a far greater accomplishment than sitting back and letting people who know what they’re doing take out the world’s most wanted terrorist), but that didn’t matter. In 1992, the number one issue was the economy, same as now.
As I watched former Pres. Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention tonight, it reminded me of Reagan's electrifying address at the 1992 Republican National Convention. Reagan was amazingly popular, like Clinton is now. He gave a rousing speech, and the audience loved it. But it didn't matter; Reagan wasn't on the ballot; he would never be president again, and many people who idolized the Gipper as a great conservative leader were gravely disappointed in his successor. (Heck, even Art Laffer jumped ship and voted for Clinton.) Similarly, many Americans who were so enamored of Slick Willie and voted for Obama in '08 are now supporting Mitt Romney.
Sure, Romney doesn’t have the charisma of Bill Clinton, but he also doesn’t have the baggage--no draft-dodging, no affairs--and Obama needn't worry about a serious independent candidate siphoning off votes (though, in this climate, such a candidate might just as likely take votes away from Mitt Romney), but he presents a plausible alternative to the current administration, the threshold criterion for any candidate seeking to oust an incumbent president. Unlike Bush, however, Obama can use the excuse that he inherited a deep recession. That's probably the main reason polls are still tight; Obama's performance is measured against a different metric than most of his predecessors have been held to. Still, if this election is about the economy, then voters would have to be pretty stupid to ask for four more years of the status quo by re-electing Barack Obama.