The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

History lesson: PA 1980

April 23, 2008

Pundits have frequently compared the 2008 election to 1980. In both elections, the opposition party fielded strong candidates in the face of an unpopular president brought down by economic insecurity and foreign policy disaster. For his part, Senator Barack Obama has openly compared himself to Ronald Reagan — not in substance, of course, but in transformational style.

Reagan won the 1980 Republican nomination for President, but his main opponent became his Vice President and was later elected for the top job.

I was a freshman in college during spring 1980 and was taking a course on campaigns and elections. Our term paper assignment was interesting. We had to select a presidential primary or caucus and turn in a paper predicting a winner before the votes were counted. We were supposed to analyze demographic information, campaign appeals, resources, and other factors when making our predictions.

I selected the Pennsylvania Republican primary largely because it was very late in the cycle and because the Republican race was still being contested. By April, however, Reagan was comfortably ahead. He had already won most of the contests. Indeed, Reagan ended up winning 29 elections that year — out of 34 contests — and just over 60% of all votes cast in them.

So, what happened in 1980? Which candidate did I pick? Who won — Reagan or Bush?

Well, I picked Reagan to win.

Yet, Bush won just over 50% of the votes and Reagan won under 43%. In my defense, because of his “grassroots work,” Reagan did win most of the delegates.

So, at 18, I was not much of a political analyst.

But that’s not the take-home lesson.

Pennsylvania didn’t stop the inevitability of front-runner Reagan capturing the Republican nomination. Like Reagan, Obama has sometimes won the delegate count even when he lost the popular vote: Nevada and Texas may be joined by PA.

Pennsylvania was an unfortunate speedbump for the frontrunner, but it did not seriously slow the campaign. Will 2008 be like 1980?

Incidentally, Bush’s strong showing made him the Veep, even though he had accused Reagan of advocating “voodoo economics.” In that case, intra-party mud-slinging did not seriously damage the frontrunner.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.