Speaking on the Judge Jeanine Show Saturday (12:00 mark in the above video), Trump was asked about Obama coming out against him. He feigns surprise, and says that nobody wants to run against him. He then does an interesting thing, that he has done before, he refers to the infamous Gallup poll from January of 1980 showing that Carter was leading Reagan by 30 points. Reagan ended up winning by 10 points, a landslide.
“And it was interesting, because the polls of Ronald Reagan, when he was running against Jimmy Carter, the polls were so bad. Much worse than my polls, and my polls, some of them are good. In the Fox polls I beat Hillary Clinton.”
Trump loves to compare himself to Reagan, and in this instance he is hoping that he could be seen as the savior underdog. There are some serious differences however between the 1980 race and the 2016 race.
In an excellent article on Red State, Dan McLaughlin runs down several reasons that the 1980 election was a very different one from the 2016 race.
Polling was in its infancy in 1980. In 2016 we have access to dozens of polls of different types utilizing large sample sizes and computer data that can be aggregated to get a better picture of the actual sentiment of the country. In 1980 there was one poll, run by Gallup. They were low on Reagan the entire race, and ultimately got it wrong, having Reagan only winning by 3%. Private polling by the Reagan and Carter camps told a more accurate story.
Another difference is that Carter was an incumbent. Incumbents automatically start out high, obviously having the highest name recognition. Hillary Clinton is not an incumbent.
At the time of the original poll, January of l980, the Iran Hostage crisis had just happened. The American people tend to rally around their country and leaders when there is a foreign threat. As the Carter Administration faltered on the hostage crisis public support quickly eroded. As you can see in the below poll, Carter took a nose dive from January 1980, whereas Clinton has remained steady.
In January of 1980, Reagan had not yet started winning primaries. After he won a few of them he unified the GOP behind him, who supported him. Compare this to Donald Trump, who has repeatedly threatened the GOP to run as a third party candidate, and will almost certainly force a contested convention. There is a serious groundswell of anti-Trump sentiment in the Republican party, with many of his former opponents refusing to endorse him and many actively campaigning against him.
Reagan had plenty of political experience and a track record for winning. He won the governorship of California, and made a serious second place showing in the 1976 Presidential race. Trump is a complete unknown, having never been in an election before. Reagan had proven himself a winner.
Reagan was not extremely well known at that point, and thus got to write a lot of his own narrative for the American people. Donald Trump is already very well known, and generally disliked. A poll at Five Thirty Eight found that a whopping 58% of Republicans had an unfavorable opinion of The Donald. Reagan got to tell the American people who he was and was able to shape how they got to know him. Trump is already known, and the American people don’t seem to like what they see.
Trump trades in the language of the “disaffected white working class voter,” his target audience and almost exclusively who he appeals to. Red State tells an amazing story of the changing American demographic in one statistic that does not bode well for Donald Trump. In 1980 the white worker class voter made up 65% of the general electorate. In 2012 that demographic was the fastest shrinking in the country, making up just 36% of electorate. That’s a staggering 44% drop in just 32 years.
As much as Trump wants to be Reagan, and have a massive comeback like Reagan in 1980, the climate and situation of the two candidates couldn’t really be more different. Reagan worked tirelessly to unite his party and the voters around him while Donald Trump has gone out of his way to alienate almost everyone from Republicans to women to minorities. He can invoke the sacred name of Reagan as much as he wants but the odds of a underdog comeback are disappearing by the second.