TAMPA, Fla. — Nearly 32 years have passed since a Republican ousted a Democratic president. Now Mitt Romney is trying to pull it off in much the same way that Ronald Reagan did.
The newly anointed Republican nominee, echoing Reagan, says his presidency would bring not just a revival of America’s moribund economy, but also a repair of its self-image, “the feeling we’ll have that our country’s back,” as one Romney TV ad puts it.
Romney also on occasion invokes Cold War conflicts with the Soviets and, like Reagan, has called for a military buildup offset by deep cuts in the rest of government. He has also borrowed Reagan’s racially charged tactic of stoking voter resentment of people on welfare.
Yet what worked in 1980 is a high-risk approach in 2012.
Apart from the stalled economy, this election climate looks little like the one that enabled Reagan to unseat Jimmy Carter. The American electorate has grown more diverse. And Romney lacks some of the key personal attributes that made Reagan appealing in an era of high anxiety over inflation, long lines at gas stations and, most of all, the Iranian hostage crisis.
“Ronald Reagan was someone who knew who he was, and knew what he felt, and had a sense for what was the right thing to do and projected leadership and decisiveness,” said Charles Cook, publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Romney projects expertise and knowledge, but not necessarily decisiveness.”
For months, Republicans have seen the 1980 election as a model for retaking the White House in 2012. Just as Reagan surpassed Carter after a strong debate performance late in the campaign, they hope Romney will use the party’s national convention this week, along with three upcoming debates, to clear up any doubts Obama and his allies have tried to raise about his fitness for the presidency.
In the summer of 1980, said former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, voters wanted to bounce Carter, but were unsure about Reagan.
“They were told a bunch of terrible things about Reagan that made them think he was a warmonger and dangerous,” Barbour said. “A right-wing kook. Old. All sorts of stuff. And that didn’t actually clear up until the debate.” In the end, he said, voters concluded: “Reagan doesn’t look like a nut to me.”
Gerald Rafshoon, Carter’s chief media strategist, recalled the circumstances differently. Just before the election, he said, internal polling found voters believed the negative things they’d heard about Reagan, but decided to take a chance on him because they saw Carter as unable to stand up to Iran.
“They didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan,” he said. “They voted against Jimmy Carter.”
Carter’s failure to secure the release of U.S. Embassy staff members taken hostage in Tehran dominated the campaign. Reagan, the former California governor whose Hollywood career gave him a personal ease that Romney notably lacks, made strong leadership his central theme, casting himself as an antidote to what he called Carter’s weakness and vacillation. “Our friends don’t know whether they can trust us, and certainly our enemies have no respect for us,” Reagan said in a campaign speech.
Now, polls show, voters see Obama as more capable than Romney on foreign affairs. Obama’s campaign has highlighted the killing of Osama bin Laden as one of the president’s main achievements.
Romney’s biggest edge over Obama remains the public perception that he is better qualified to lead an economic recovery. That advantage for the former Massachusetts governor could be enhanced if sour economic news emerges before the election. But other election dynamics leave Romney decidedly less well positioned than Reagan.
As Carter was agonizing over the hostage crisis, he was also fighting a protracted Democratic primary battle against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Obama, however, has his party united, if less energized than four years ago.
This time it’s Romney suffering the consequences of a party nomination fight. His Republican primary rivals pressured him to shift rightward and his remarks on immigration, abortion and contraception have helped Obama build wide leads among Latinos and women.
Reagan also did not stumble, as Romney has, in defining himself on his own terms.
For months, Obama and his allies have run ads portraying Romney as a ruthless corporate buyout titan who laid off factory workers, drove jobs overseas and used exotic tax shelters to maximize his wealth. Romney failed to respond, until recently, by running ads telling a more flattering version of his biography.
Also open to question is the potency of Romney’s welfare attacks. With voters contemplating whether to deny the nation’s first African American president a second term, Romney’s decision to start advertising heavily on welfare last month was seen, inevitably, through the lens of race.
A Romney ad says that under Obama, welfare recipients “wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job.” (Nonpartisan fact checkers have found the accusation untrue.)
When Reagan railed against welfare cheats and championed “states’ rights” by calling for a shift of federal social programs to the states, the country was in the midst of a political realignment driven largely by the racial attitudes of whites.
Put off by the Democratic Party’s support of civil rights measures, many whites, particularly in the South, switched allegiance to Republicans. Outside the South, blue-collar whites were a ripe constituency for Reagan. Many blamed their own hardships, at least in part, on affirmative action.
But population shifts over the last three decades have made Romney’s path tougher than Reagan’s as he tries to secure strong support among whites to compensate for Obama’s overwhelming advantage among African Americans and Latinos.
In the 1980 presidential election, white voters made up 88% of the electorate. By 2008, the figure had dropped to 74%. Over the same period, the Latino share of the presidential electorate rose from 2% to 9%, while African Americans went from 10% to 13%.
Times staff writer Michael Memoli contributed to this report.