What 1980 could Tell us About the 2020 Presidential Election

Strangely, there are some eerie similarities between the 1980 presidential election and the looming 2020 contest.

1980 was a watershed year when Ronald Reagan’s conservative revolution smashed the New Deal/World War II/Cold War consensus that had dominated American politics for 40 years. Strangely, many people; including me, sense a similar paradigm shift coming in American politics.

To explain, I think there is a rising leftist/populist sentiment in America that wants a more powerful government, wealth redistribution, and a larger welfare state. Like the conservative revival of the 1970s, distrust of establishment and popular frustrations with the economy fuels the new leftist surge.

The Leftist Revolution like the Reagan Revolution is a break with the popular political consensus that values small government and neoliberal economic policies. Therefore, 2020 could mark the beginning of a new political era in American politics.

Some Similarities between 1980 and 2020

There are some interesting similarities between 1980 and 2020 that point to a paradigm shift. Those similarities include:

Trump vs. Carter

An unpopular populist president a large percentage of the population views as an incompetent buffoon. In 1980, that president was Jimmy Carter (D-Georgia). In 2019, that president is Donald J. Trump (R-New York).

Today Carter is a beloved figure, the highly ethical Christian president. Back in 1980, however, the media was mocking him as “Peanut Jimmy,” the incompetent clod who was losing the Cold War.

Neither liberals, nor conservatives had much love for Carter. Liberal icon U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) unsuccessfully challenged Carter in the 1980 primaries, for example.

Notably, Gallup estimates Carter had an average approval rating of 45.5% throughout his presidency. In comparison, FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls estimated Trump’s approval rating at 41.5% on 4 September 2019.

Moreover, Carter like Trump came into office as a game-changing reformer. Yet Carter changed little and offended many Americans with his style of leadership.

In particular, Carter was incapable of dealing with foreign policy problems. Notably, both the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan took Carter by complete surprise. 

Is Trump the New Carter?

There were some major differences. Trump is enjoying low interest rates and high rates of economic growth.

In contrast, Carter faced a terrible inflation that paralyzed the American economy. However, the economic growth and low interest rates under Trump are not benefiting many Americans.

Interestingly, like Carter, Trump obsesses over Iran, threatening war with that nation. Notably, Carter ordered a massive commando raid on Iran that ended in catastrophic failure in April 1980. 

In addition, Trump is hard-pressed to deal with a powerful international rival. However, Carter faced the decrepit Soviet Union, while Trump is coping with a fast-growing People’s Republic of China.

An interesting difference is that the USSR’s threat to America was military. However, the threats from the People’s Republic of China are economic and technological and far harder to cope with.

In particular, China seems better at mastering today’s technologies than America is, even though America invented that tech. For example, FutureSin’s Michael K. Spencer thinks the People’s Republic is winning the race to develop artificial intelligence. Oddly, one reason the Soviet Union lost the Cold War was its inability to keep up with technological progress especially in electronics.

Ronald Reagan and Bernie Sanders

Another fascinating parallel between 1980 and 2020 is a popular disruptive primary candidate challenging the establishment and promising revolutionary change.

In 1980, that candidate was Ronald Reagan (R-California). Reagan had unsuccessfully challenged President Gerald R. Ford (R-Michigan) and set the stage for the incumbent’s defeat in 1976. Four years later, Reagan was back with a larger movement.

Notably, the Republican establishment tried to stop Reagan in 1980. First, by rallying to Mr. Moderate; George H. W. Bush (R-Texas), then by attempting to resurrect Ford. Eventually, both failed and Bush became Reagan’s running mate.

In 2020, the disruptive candidate is U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) who promises a revolution like Reagan. Sanders proposes a complete break with the post-Cold War neoliberal consensus. Just as Reagan proposed a complete break with the New Deal.

Predictably, the Democratic establishment is trying to stop Sanders by branding him “unelectable.” To that end, the media and the establishment are promoting their own Mr. Moderate, former Vice President Joe Biden (D-Delaware).

Is Sanders the New Reagan?

Like Reagan, Sanders has lots of grassroots support but few friends in the establishment. There are some interesting differences between Reagan and Sanders.

Sanders-021507-18335- 0004

In terms of personality, Sanders is more like another Republican icon U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) than Reagan. Like Sanders, Goldwater was a grumpy ideologue of Jewish descent who wore glasses, but became the unlikely leader of a political insurgency. Importantly, Sanders lacks Reagan’s charisma, polish, and likability.

Moreover, the elite’s attacks on Reagan in 1980 were every bit as vicious as the assaults on Sanders today. For example, they labeled Reagan a B-Movie actor, an intellectual lightweight, a cowboy, and a heartless right winger. Today, they label Sanders a radical, a racist, a maker of “fairy tale promises,” and the worst insult of all a “Trumpist.”

Will Sanders Lead the Revolution?

Oddly, Sanders like Reagan often finds himself at odds with the media. Largely because he dares question the sincerity and integrity of American journalists. In addition, Sanders admits he believes conservatives’ claims of media bias are accurate.

Yet Reagan overcame all the attacks to lead a successful political revolution and take control of the Republican Party. I think Sanders could do the same in 2020. Notably, the August 2019 Emerson Poll puts Sanders at second place in the Democratic Presidential contest with 24% of the vote.

Moreover, I estimate 53% of the likely Democratic voters Emerson polled in August 2019 supported leftist candidates. However, the August 2019 Monmouth Poll estimates another leftist U.S. Senator Liz Warren (D-Massachusetts) is more popular than Bernie.

Specifically, Monmouth estimates Warren’s support at 20% in early voting states. However, Monmouth estimates Sanders support at 23% in later voting states.

Thus, Bernie’s political revolution could occur with somebody else at the helm. Another similarity to Goldwater who saw Reagan lead the political upheaval he fought for.

Will 2020 be 1980 All Over Again?

Ironically, 1980 all over again with Bernie as Reagan will be terrible for Republicans. Reagan easily won the 1980 election with 489 Electoral College votes and 43.902 million popular votes, 270 to Win calculates.

Carter received just 49 Electoral College Votes and 35.484 million popular votes. Interestingly, 1980 shows third-party candidates have no effect in presidential elections. In 1980, independent John Anderson won 5.719 million popular votes but nothing in the Electoral College.

Cropped Approved CFF

Thus, 2020 as 1980 would be a landslide victory for Democrats with Trump facing a humiliating defeat. Conversely, I do not think a repeat of 1980 is likely because of the current political landscape.

In particular, I think Trump and the Republicans will carry most Red States next year. Additionally, Trump, unlike Carter, has a small but passionate following, that is just large enough to tip the scales in many states. Thus, I think there is little possibility of a 1980 type landscape next year. Instead, I believe Trump could win reelection in a close race. 

How Trump Could Win in 2020

Instead, a more likely outcome is a close election similar to 2016, in which one candidate wins with a few thousand votes.

However, I believe Bernie could carry many Red and Purple states Hillary R. Clinton (D-New York) lost in 2016. Those states could include Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Kansas, for instance.

Interestingly, data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study shows disgruntled leftists made up 10% to 12% of Trump voters in states like Michigan, University of Massachusetts-Amherst Professor Brian F. Schaffner claims. Those leftists could have the tipped scales for Trump because the Donald’s victory margin was small in some states.

For instance, Trump carried Pennsylvania by just 44,292 votes’ won Wisconsin by just 51,317 votes, and barely won Michigan with only 22,748 votes in 2016, Schaffner estimates. If Schnaffner’s thesis is correct, Democrats could lose in 2020, if they nominate a moderate like former President Joe Biden (D-Delaware).

Why Biden Would Lose in 2020

In particular, Democrats need to be wary of empowering conspiracy theories about the establishment rigging the primaries in favor of moderates.

Such thinking could have driven some leftists to Trump in 2016. However, in 2016 few people thought Trump could win.

2020 will be different because Trump is a proven winner. Thus, disgruntled leftists could be more likely to hold their noses as they vote for Biden. However, there is little popular enthusiasm for Biden, like there is Sanders and Liz Warren.

Interestingly, Biden is attracting no crowds on the campaign trail, Politico reports. In contrast to the mobs that come out for Warren, Sanders, and the rabid fans internet favorite Andrew Yang (D-New York) attracts.

Warren for example attracted 15,000 people to her 21 August 2019, rally in Seattle, The Vanity Fair Hive claims. I believe the lack of enthusiasm spells doom for Biden because Trump proved enthusiasm is the key to momentum and victory in 2016.

In the final analysis, I do not think we will see a paradigm shift that settles questions and resets the political order in 2020. Instead, what we will see is the continuation of divided politics and growing frustration with the process. My guess is the Great Political Reset will occur in 2024.

Consequently, the 2020 election cycle will disappoint many people on both sides of the aisle.