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What the 1980 Election Says About 2020 – “The Sunday Political Brunch” - August 9, 2020


CHARLESTON, W. Va. – Some elections are unique, and some elections are very similar. The times, issues, and circumstances all change, or do they? Sometimes an election offers eerily similar dynamics, and history offers us lessons. I’ve covered every presidential contest since 1980, and to me, 2020 is starting to look quite similar. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“A Troubled Incumbency” – Normally being an incumbent is a huge advantage. Studies show that incumbents win reelection 96 percent of the time, on average. Incumbents have the advantages of large name recognition, news coverage, and the powerful notion that voters like to side with a “winner” often irrespective of the issues (the “bandwagon” effect). Incumbency can attract donations, too! But in 1980, President Jimmy Carter, and in 2020, President Donald Trump had huge segments of the population that thought they were doing a bad job. Negative approval ratings are like rust on a car. It can spread like cancer.

“Sometimes an Outsider Can’t Fit In” – Carter and Trump both ran as outsiders who were going to shake up Washington, D.C. as never before. They arrived in town and continued to do just that, much to their peril. Oddly, both men arrived with their party in power in both chambers of Congress. You’d think that would have led to massive legislation being passed, but it didn’t. Each man had a lot of intraparty fighting with leaders on their own side. Contrast that with Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who also ran as outsiders, but embraced official Washington as soon as they arrived. Reagan and Clinton also had to deal with the other party running parts of Congress at times, but both men worked across the aisle with bipartisan success. What a study in contrast!

“Unforeseen Troubles” – The world of politics is full of sharp turns, and unexpected surprises, not all of them for the better. How could Jimmy Carter have known when he first ran and won in 1976, that Iranian rebels would seize our embassy in Tehran and take 52 Americans hostage in 1979? How could Donald Trump have perceived in 2016, that a pandemic of Coronavirus would appear in 2020? Presidents are usually chosen based on economic circumstances, often beyond the control of the White House. In both 1980 and 2020, a lot of voters simply felt the incumbent mismanaged the crisis. And in both years the economy plummeted into a widespread mess with the incumbent unable to spur a rebound.

“Trapped in the White House” – In 1979 and 1980, President Carter employed what came to be known as, “The Rose Garden Strategy.’ He essentially barricaded himself in the White House with top advisors, trying to make it look like they were “working the problem” 24/7. But with little progress to report, the perception was that nothing was getting done. Fast forward to 2020, with President Trump hosting often contentious daily briefings with his White House Task Force on Covid-19. But the numbers got worse, and the animosity with the press corps heightened, and the briefings ended for three months. As with 1980, it appeared in 2020 that the Commander-in-Chief wasn’t effective, and that led to a sharp drop in public confidence.

“Senate Scrutiny” – Sometimes a presidential election loss can be so devastating, it has a “reverse coattail” effect. In 1980 Democrats controlled the U.S. Senate with a 58 to 41 majority. President Carter led in the polls most of the year, and even beat back a primary challenge from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) Massachusetts. While Carter’s chances at a second term were not guaranteed, it seemed implausible that Democrats could lose the Senate. Well guess what happened? Ronald Reagan won an Electoral College landslide, and in doing so his coattails were so strong that Republicans won a net gain of 12 seats and took control of the Senate. Even legends such as Sen. George McGovern (D) South Dakota, Sen. Birch Bayh (D) Indiana, and Sen. Herman Tallmadge (D) Georgia, went down to defeat.

“Senate 2020” – The latest Real Clear Politics composite poll shows the Electoral College count at 212 for former Vice President Joe Biden, 115 for President Trump, with 211 in toss-up states, (again you need 270 to win). Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the U.S. Senate today, a much narrower lead than Democrats held in 1980. If Biden wins big, he could be a factor in states such as North Carolina, Maine and Colorado, which have incumbent Republican senators who are in trouble. With a Biden win, Democrats only need a net-gain of three Senate seats to take control of the upper chamber.

“The Challenger’s Age” – While Carter and Trump were vulnerable for a second term, their backers often poked fun at the age and perceived mental acuity of the opponent. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was 68 and the oldest nominee for president. Critics thought he was sometimes “in a fog.” Fast forward to 2020, and Joe Biden is 77 years old, and surpasses Reagan as the oldest nominee. Critics have also attacked Biden’s perceived mental state and view his sometimes “doddering debate performances” as a major weakness. Obviously in 1980, the strategy failed and the “old man” won. Will history repeat itself in 2020? Stay tuned!

I’d like to hear your thoughts on how the 1980 and 2020 presidential elections compare. Just click the comment button.

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia, its five neighboring states and most of the Washington, D.C. media market. He is a National Contributing Political Writer for “The White House Patch” at www.Patch.com.

© 2020, MarkCurtisMedia, LLC

Photo courtesy: Getty Images

An "August" Political Season - "The Sunday Political Brunch" August 2, 2020


CHARLESTON, W. Va. – This is an August no one saw coming. Instead of being a month of “august” political events, it may be a month of great disappointment and few big headlines. Or, will it? Despite the doomed, “Zoomed” conventions, there might just be some real excitement after all. Let’s “brunch” on that this week!

“A Sleeper for Vice-President?” – She was on almost no one’s radar screen (including mine), but suddenly Rep. Karen Bass (D) California has rocketed out of nowhere to be under serious consideration. Here’s her :30 second biography. Bass is in her fifth term in Congress, representing a district in Los Angeles County. Prior to her ten years in the House of Representatives, she served six years in the California Assembly, including as Speaker of the House from 2008 to 2010. She was the first African American woman in America to be a House Speaker. I’ve interviewed her in both offices and she’s a force. On a sad, ironic note, if Bass joins the Biden ticket, you would have two candidates who lost a daughter in a tragic car accident. The odd, cross-paths of politics.

“Pros and Cons on Bass” – She rocketed into the leadership early in both the State Assembly and the House of Representatives. She’s a liberal and a partisan, but is known for having cordial, effective relationships with Republicans. She also served as Speaker of the House for a state – that if it were a stand-alone nation – would have the fifth largest economy in the world. So, she has chops. On the downside, (as with Sen, Kamala Harris), she comes from California, a state Democrats are likely to win no matter who is the VP choice. With Florida and Georgia in play as battleground states, I still say Rep. Val Demings (D) Florida, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) Atlanta are the more likely picks. Stay tuned, we could know this week!

“What Next?” – I was on the “Copeland’s Corner” podcast this week with my old pal Brian Copeland from KGO Radio in San Francisco. He asked me if Joe Biden should start naming his cabinet now, rather than wait for the traditional post-election appointments. I have written about this topic often over the past year, basically saying any Democrat who won the nomination should announce the cabinet well before November. You can imagine Biden picking Sen. Kamala Harris for Attorney General, and Pete Buttigieg for Housing and Urban Development, and Sen. Jack Reed for Secretary of Defense, and so forth. It would be unprecedented. No one has ever announced the team they planned to field in January, this early. I’d do it! Go!

“Why Telegraph Your Moves? – Yes, naming a cabinet early has its risks. Despite good vetting over the years, we’ve seen surprises in the confirmation process that no one saw in the background check. Senator John Tower’s nomination for Secretary of Defense misfired, not to mention Bill Clinton’s first two choices for Attorney General, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood. But there are pluses. Ronald Reagan promised during the campaign that he’d name the nation’s first female Supreme Court Justice. And while he did not mention Sandra Day O’Connor by name until he won, and there was a high court opening, she was a hugely successful and popular choice.

“The Unconventional Conventions” – It’s August and the Democratic National Convention is supposed to be meeting in Milwaukee the week of August 17th, with the Republicans scheduled in Charlotte the week of August 24th. Neither conventions will really happen as we know it. A small smattering of dignitaries and limited media will be in both cities, as the conventions will largely be viral. These conventions have largely become “political cocktail parties” for the last several cycles but quite honesty have lost their relevance. They are political dinosaurs in an Internet age. I’ll be on vacation and not attending this year. I may weigh-in on this blog, but I suspect I will zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! “The Times, they are a Changin,’” sang Bob Dylan.

“Remembering Herman Cain” – Last week I paid tribute to Rep. John Lewis (D) Georgia, whom I came to know well as a Washington, D.C. Correspondent for WSB-TV in Atlanta. This week the nation lost Herman Cain, a former Republican presidential candidate in 2012. These two very different men were not natives of Atlanta, but both made their political legacy there. Lewis was a liberal leader of the successful 1960s Civil Rights Movement, while Cain was a politically conservative, successful businessman. There’s always been this odd political assumption that to be successful, or progress as an African American, you had to vote Democrat. Why? As a white male I was free to vote for liberal Ted Kennedy or conservative Ronald Reagan. Shouldn’t black voters have the same political options as me, without reproach? Both these men should be honored for being successful African American role models – albeit at opposite ends of the political spectrum – and for their contributions to this nation.

Who would you like to see as Joe Biden’s Vice-Presidential pick? Just click the comment button and let us know!

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is a Chief Political Reporter for the six Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia, its five neighboring states and most of the Washington, D.C. media market. He is a National Contributing Political Writer for “The White House Patch” at www.Patch.com.

© Mark Curtis Media, LLC

Photo courtesy: Getty Images

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