Once More With Feeling: It’s Not 1980

As noted here on several occasions, Republicans just love comparing this presidential election to that of 1980. The reasons are both obvious (they soundly defeated an incumbent Democratic president despite significant early doubts about their candidate’s ideology and general fitness for the office) and somewhat less obvious (Reagan was the first “movement conservative” candidate to be elected president; Carter’s 1976 victory was in retrospect “revealed” as a temporary, “accidental” interruption of a long period of Republican domination of the White House).

But as Nate Silver demonstrates today at FiveThirtyEight, efforts to compare the “failed presidency of Jimmy Carter” to the Obama administration, particularly when it comes to economic performance, are either ignorant or mendacious. Those of us who remember what life was actually like in 1980, or for that matter, who remember the dreaded word “stagflation,” can confirm that anecdotally, but Nate’s run the numbers:

Based on the data as reported in the six months leading up to May 29, 1980, inflation was increasing at a frantic annualized rate of almost 16 percent. At the same time, industrial production, consumption and personal income were declining at annualized rates of about 5 percent, adjusting for inflation.

The jobs data was less bad than the other variables in 1980, but still not good. As the figures were reported at the time, jobs had increased slightly in the six months leading up to May 1980, but not enough to keep up with population growth.

The forward-looking data was bad as well. The stock market declined in the six months leading up to May 1980 (even without adjusting for inflation), and the consensus of economic forecasters at the time was that conditions would remain recessionary for the six months ahead.

By contrast, the data this year is mediocre, but nowhere near that terrible. Industrial production has picked up quite a bit and is an economic bright spot, which could help Mr. Obama in the manufacturing-intensive economies of the Midwest. Inflation has not been a major problem throughout the economy as a whole, although energy prices have been a periodic threat.

Carter was also enduring an attention-grabbing and humiliating foreign policy crisis (the Iranian hostage nightmare), and unlike Obama today, was presiding over a violently divided Democratic Party that was being rapidly undercut by long-term political trends (the realignment of conservative Democrats in the South and, to a lesser extent, among ethnic Catholics).

As Nate says, it’s remarkable that Carter’s landslide loss wasn’t worse. And it’s even more remarkable that the contest was competitive until shortly before election day, particularly since third-party candidate John Anderson (who veered significantly to the left in the late going) was clearly taking more votes away from Carter than from Reagan in the autumn.

On top of everything else, the poll standings of the candidates in 1980 were exceptionally turbulent. This year a three- or four-point shift in Romney’s or Obama’s numbers sets off chattering class hysteria.

So while every prior election may have some value as a data point, 1980 was just that: a data point among many others, not a prophecy.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.