Today, Ronald Reagan is remembered as a great president, a hero to the conservative movement and giant among giants. It was not always that way. The myth is that when Ronald Reagan electrified the convention in 1976 and nearly won the presidential nomination that he immediately became a lock for 1980. The fact is, many in the Republican party were very wary of him and the Democrats hated him - hated his guts.
I'm unable to find the article I read about a year ago, but it was roughly around the 1-2 year mark after Jimmy Carter's inauguration that polls showed that many Americans wished Gerald Ford was president instead. One poll actually had Gerald Ford leading Ronald Reagan fairly handily for the 1980 GOP nomination. Today, nearly half of Americans wish John McCain was president. There are no polls available asking if people would vote for John McCain if he was running in 2012.
While many thought that Reagan could win in 1980, he was far from being the annointed one even though some who look through the murky waters into history think he was. Those who say Sarah Palin is no Reagan because she has high unfavorables and because there is a large enough field of candidates that there are others to choose from miss an important component of history. Ronald Reagan was despised by the left and Republican insiders were just too scared and uncertain about putting a gaffe prone right wing conservative who was once divorced and whose children, particulary Ron and Patti, were not helpful to his public persona. Patti Davis makes Bristol Palin look like Mary Poppins by comparison. And as for Ron, there is no medical reason for his condition.
Kennesaw State University's Ronald Reagan page pointed out that "The 1980 campaign was not a contest between two overwhelming Party favorites." But they did point out the key to Reagan's victory.
Ronald Reagan also had to work hard for his party’s nomination. With Carter's obvious weakness, a large Republican field turned out for the competition. Reagan did have a definite advantage. He had been traveling the country for three years building networks, raising money, repeating one simple message: "Get the government off our backs." After a setback in the Iowa Caucus, Reagan went on to win the New Hampshire Primary and roll to the Republican Convention.Now it should be starting to look familiar to the youngsters and the naysayers. Those of you who are too young to remember what happened between 1976 and 1980 and those of you who say, ah there are still a lot of differences, might be looking at the actual events and not the technique. Winning the presidency for an outsider like Reagan required a lot more hard work, a lot more relationship building and a lot more perserverence than let's say someone like a George Herbert Walker Bush or a Mitt Romney would have to do.
When looking at the field of GOP prospects for 2012, one has to ask oneself which one is going to spend "three years building networks, raising money, repeating one simple message: 'Get the government off our backs'"?
When Jimmy Carter was nosediving in the polls, the liberals turned to an old standard-bearer, Ted Kennedy who was very reluctant at first to take on the sitting president, kind of the way Hillary Clinton is right now. Don't discount the possibility of Hillary running in 2012 either.
It will be hard to say what the outcome of a Hillary Clinton - Barack Obama primary would be this early in the game, but I'd be sure the dramatics of it would be similar to the Carter - Kennedy contest and create for interesting talk at the Democratic National Convention in 2012. At the same time a large field of Republicans will do battle for the nomination with similar tides as those in 1980. One only wonders if calling Reagan's economic plan "voodoo economics" sat as well with Reagan's supporters as saying Palin "isn't a serious human being" does with hers. And if Palin would be as quick to pick Romney to be her running mate as Reagan was to choosing Bush.
The fact remains, history dictates the symptoms of ruling romance. The automobile manual that shows how to put in a water pump, the directions on a road map and the answer to what's 2+2 don't really change much, do they? And although I slept through the networking and endorsement section of the campaigns and elections political science class in 1984, I'm wide awake for this year's lesson.
The parallels will never be exact, but they are strikingly similar between 1976-1980 and 2008-2012. I've thought about it long and hard and finally figured out there is actually one component that doesn't parallel: the media. The media was still liberal in 1976 when Gerald Ford ran. But the media turned on Carter and made it easier for Reagan to tap into the disenchantment of the American people. The media did not embrace Reagan, they just turned on Carter. Whether this happens to Obama is yet to be seen.
Like Obama, the media loved Carter in 1976. But they were not complicit in his being elected. Most Americans were disenchanted with moderate Republican policies the same way as they were leading up to the 2008 elections. But Jimmy Carter was a much more experienced candidate who didn't have a hidden agenda. It's hard to think the media would have covered it up had Jimmy Carter had any associations with radicals or socialists. And, the Ford campaign would have touted that in 1976 rather than muzzle its VP candidate.
The latest polls are beginning to show what I've suspected would happen for months now. Sarah Palin's hard work and the shedding of the image that she's a lightweight is paying off for her. While her unfavorables are still high, she now leads the field of 2012 GOP contenders. Ronald Reagan began to emerge as the favorite for the nomination around this time between 1976 and 1980 because he, too, was working like a dog.
Liberals and naysayers are still saying she's too polarizing and that she's too extreme. Republican party insiders are afraid that this may be the iron ball that Palin may not be able to get off her leg no matter how hard she runs. Even she, herself, told Sean Hannity that she would have to weigh this factor when making her decision to run. People will never shrug this off until they have no choice and it comes down to choosing either her or Obama. That's the way it was for Reagan, too.
Now you have the history lesson. I have reported. Now you decide. If you want to hear my analysis, read further.
Republican insiders are going to say that Sarah Palin will not be able to win the presidency even if she gets the nomination. They will tell you that her high negatives will offset Obama's poor showing as president and give him a better chance of winning. If you consider that Mickhail Gorbachev claims that George H.W. Bush told him "he believed Ronald Reagan was an 'extreme conservative' supported by 'blockheads and dummies,'" you can only imagine what is being said behind closed doors in today's GOP.
First of all, Ronald Reagan also had high unfavorables. Liberals hated him, just as they hate Sarah Palin. The myth that Ronald Reagan swept into power riding a wave of overwhelming popularity is not true. Ronald Reagan won the nomination in good fashion. But the general election was a haul. He never led in the polls until a week before election day. That week before, he debated Jimmy Carter for the only time and the numbers changed when the American people got to see the real Ronald Reagan, and not the Reagan that was being portrayed by the left.
Sarah Palin turned the polls around in the 2006 gubernatorial debate. She stopped what would have been a further decline in the polls for the McCain campaign with her performance in the 2008 vice presidential debate, although she was up against a financial collapse and a media that volunteered to work for the Obama campaign. People call her an idiot and a lightweight, unnamed aides say she wasn't prepared for the VP debate and critics make fun of her speaking style and choice of words. Yet her record shows she can kick people's asses in debates. A "death panel" moment in the 2012 presidential debates could be a political death panel moment for the Obama administration.
Secondly, although Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election 489 electoral votes to 49 with a spread of 51%-41% in popular vote, that vote was more a repudiation of Jimmy Carter than a committed following for Reagan. So even if 41% of the people say "not over my dead body," I wouldn't cancel the appointment with the interior decorator to measure the drapes. It's not as important for Sarah Palin to become as worshipped by the rest of America as she is by her fans, but rather it's important that she convince enough people who don't like Obama that they can trust her or that she is the lesser of two evils. She only needs 10% of the 51% of the people who say they don't like her to say they don't like Obama even more.
Finally, the American people are a fickle bunch. While most people who follow politics even to a small degree are fairly set in their ideology, many Americans are more interested in their own situation whether it's working hard to put food on the table or satisfying their entertainment needs by watching sports, soap operas, movies or shows like American idol. And just because someone today says they don't like Palin doesn't mean they won't like her tomorrow.
This is not a put down on the American people. The Founders understood this and chose to set us up as a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy. The American people are supposed to pursue life, liberty and happiness. They're not supposed to be watching cable news every night and going to rallies because they're scared out of their mind that the country is going down the dumper.
The American people just want to know if the candidate can do the job. If you are the incumbent and you show you couldn't do the job, your out. If your the incumbent and you show you can do the job, you're in. Reagan's 1984 victory, unlike in 1980, was a clear show of support and following by the American people who had by then become his fans. Don't expect the American people to be laying palms at Sarah Palin's feet even if she does win in 2012. It will be up to her to make that happen in 2016.
We are an "American idol" society. Partisans will either hate her or love her. The ones in the middle are going to be looking at her performance, her style and her charisma. She could sing the phone book like Kelly Pickler and win. She could explain the intracacies of War and Peace and lose. It's going to be about perception, those "say it ain't so, Joe" and "hows that hopey changey thing going" moments and it's going to be about her fire and brimstone speeches. Although we understand how important conservative political dogma is, it will not matter to Joe Sixpack that she can explain the existential differences between statists and constitutionalists. It's going to be if they believe they will make more money under her as president than under the current disaster we have now.
I know some of you hate when I say Sarah Palin is Ronald Reagan. But this is because of how she embodies the spirit of who he was. We all know that Sarah Palin isn't really Ronald Reagan. There will never be another Reagan. But there will also never be another Sarah Palin. In that, Sarah Palin is the next great one and she is Reaganesque, deserving to be considered for a spot on the same top shelf as Reagan pending the completion of her accomplishments.
Sarah Palin is going to win the presidency. I'm not just saying that as a fan. I'm saying it as an analyst and I'm saying it as a political scientist. If I thought she wasn't going to win, I'd tell you. I'd tell all you Palinistas that read my blogs and my tweets that I love her to death, but I don't think she's going to win. I promise you, whether you are a Palin fan or not, if I ever think she's not going to win, I'll tell you. Unless she tells us first.
But don't go out and order those commemorative President Palin gold coins just yet.
Obviously, anything can happen between now and 2012. Like my late father said, "you can step outside and get hit by a bus; you never know." So don't get all crazy on me and call me a deluded loon because I said she's going to win. Barring any of the natural monkey wrenches that life can throw at you, she will win. Can I guarantee it? No. I can't guarantee you I will wake up tomorrow. But I can tell that based upon the way things are going right now, I'll be up tomorrow. Trust me on this one.