There’s nothing quite as American as a good underdog story.
Our nation’s Founding is the ultimate underdog tale after all.
A small, ragtag group of colonists who, against all odds, overcame the might of the British Empire, which was the superpower of the day. Somehow, our forefathers overcame the military and logistical superiority of Britain’s army and navy.
It’s as compelling as it is fascinating.
And all knew the miracle they had wrought. Ever the modest man, George Washington famously said, "The harder the conflict, the greater the triumph."
As we plow ahead towards Election Day this Nov. 3, I’m reminded of another underdog story. Over 200 years after we won our independence, there was another logistical marvel born out of a crisis, and that was Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election victory.
Conventional wisdom held that Reagan, the B-movie actor with premature orange hair, as Gerald Ford derided him, could not win.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter consistently polled above the Gipper well into election season that year, but somehow in the end, Reagan pulled it off and beat Carter that fateful November, and did so in a landslide.
During the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, from late 1979 to much of 1980, Carter had a 30-point or so lead over the entire GOP primary field — including Reagan.
In 17 major polls taken between December 1979 and October 1980, Carter led in 12 polls and Reagan only in five polls, including Yankelovich, Harris, and Gallup.
In fact, most of Reagan's five polls were when Reagan took a tiny lead over Carter after the Republican convention, but these were anomalies and easily dismissed at the time.
Historically many incumbent presidents are reelected anyway, and challengers are forced to duke it out in the primary — long before they can focus all their attention on the incumbent.
In the 26 national elections from 1900 to 2000, the elected incumbent has only lost twice in non-anomalous years — 1932 and 1980. The others in which the incumbent lost, such as 1912 and 1992, there was the presence of a major third party candidate.
Gerald Ford was the incumbent in 1976 but he was not an elected incumbent, thus the American voter had not made a psychic investment in him.
Reagan, of course, did go on to win the GOP primaries and clinch the nomination in 1980.
But even his post-convention boost wasn’t siginificant; Carter got an even bigger post-convention bounce and was still well ahead of Reagan that summer.
For most of 1980, Carter had at least a 10-point lead.
As late as October of 1980, polls showed Carter still leading Reagan 45 to 39.
It wasn’t until the end of that month that Reagan pulled ahead, and even then it was only a slim 47 to 44 difference.
And then it happened.
One week before the election, they met in a one-on-one debate.
For weeks, Carter’s men had been hyping his debate skills while denigrating Reagan’s.
Reagan always knew one of his greatest assents was being underestimated.
In their debate, Reagan not only beat expectations, he walloped Carter and then polished him off with his devesting "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" summation.
After four years of high interest rates, high inflation, high unemployment, high tension, high malaise, forceful Soviet advances and low performance by the incumbent, Carter, the American people were ready for a change.
Reagan didn’t just beat Carter. He whipped Carter nationally, showing America he would be more than an acceptable alternative to the Georgian. In some states, Reagan captured more than one third of the Democratic vote; this ushered the emergence of the "Reagan Democrat."
Reagan carried the election by a landslide, winning 50.7% to 41% for Carter (the third party candidate John Anderson took 6.6%). Reagan trounced Carter in the Electoral College, 489 to 49.
He won not only in loyal Republican states, but also in areas that were reliably Democratic territories like Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington State, Connecticut and New Mexico.
Reagan also took all of the south except Georgia. Carter’s loss was the worst walloping of an incumbent Democratic president in decades, born from four years of incompetence and policy failures.
As of that spring and summer (of 1980), the knights of the keyboard of the supine national media were writing that Carter’s re-election was in the bag.
Data showed Reagan couldn’t win.
The data always showed Carter ahead.
Reagan was not supposed to win, but like the archetype of the American underdog, he made history and changed the face of this nation forever in doing so. Reagan's old campaign manager, John Sears used to say, "Politics is motion."
Indeed it is.
Reagan campaigned high and low in 1980, even to a burned out section of Brooklyn.
The weekend prior to the electon his campaign had him stumping in New York City.
Carter, meanwhile, was running a "Rose Garden" campaign, saying and campaigning little until the very end.
By then, it was too late.
In the last week of October 1980, The Washington Post touted a fake poll of theirs just days before the election saying Carter would win handily, but everybody knew the second -rate paper had a long history of systemic ultra-leftist bias, and it was laughed off.
Donald Trump is furiously campaigning high and low, saying things and doing things.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, is running his own Rose Garden campaign, except there are no roses in the basement of his house. Maybe some mushrooms and plastic ferns, but those horticultural embellishments won't cut it, and they don't ensure victory.
Worse, Biden is not the incumbent but he is running an incumbent's campaign.
Biden is not in motion.
Plus, of what little he is saying, it is all an appeal to the most liberal voters.
It's obvious he and his managers don’t know how to run a general election campaign.
As of January 2020, the polls said Trump's reelection was all but certain.
As of two weeks ago, it was Biden who had November in the bag. Now, just this week, a new poll shows Trump within three points of the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Rest assured, each poll will be taken as the gospel by the chattering consultant class . . . until the next poll is released.
However, they should try to remember that now, much like 1980: Facts, as Truman said, are stubborn things. Polls, as he also knew well, they are often unpredictable.
Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian. His books include, “Reagan’s Revolution, The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started it All,” “Rendezvous with Destiny, Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” "Reagan Rising: The Decisive Years," and “ Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan." He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, “December, 1941” and his new 2019 book, “Mary Ball Washington,” a definitive biography of George Washington’s mother. Shirley lectures frequently at the Reagan Library and the Reagan Ranch. He has been named the First Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater and will teach a class this fall at the University of Virginia on Reagan. He appears regularly on Newsmax TV, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. Read Craig Shirley's Reports — More Here.
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