With a few notable exceptions, like my estimable colleague Jonathan V. Last, it seems that nobody wants to predict the November 3 election—not the staunchest partisans and particularly not the professional prognosticators. Snake-bit from 2016, they’re all hedging with terms like “the race seems stable” (translation: Biden is comfortably ahead) or “Trump has a 26 percent chance” of winning (which strikes me as CYA).
What the heck, I predict that Joe Biden will win in a landslide. I know, I know, there are all those Trump flotillas out there. And no one knows how the virus will affect turnout. And there could be “shy Trump voters” who will surge to the polls on election day. And the country is so polarized that the era of landslide victories is over. And remember what happened in 2016!
Fine. Most of that could be true, and Biden could still win in a landslide.
While there is no historical analog to 2020 (and hopefully never will be again), the contest that most resembles it, I submit, is 1980. The final two years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency were terrible for the country. The oil shock following the 1979 Iranian revolution sent prices soaring, while the Federal Reserve’s tight money policy to fight inflation sent the economy into its worst recession since World War II. The unemployment rate in 1980 was 7.2 percent, which may not seem so bad to 2020 eyes, but it was combined with an inflation rate of 13.5 percent, yielding what came to be known as the “misery index.”
In addition to economic malaise, Carter’s term saw foreign policy reversals. On Carter’s watch, the Soviet Union brought 13 new countries, including Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua within its orbit, and in 1979, the USSR rolled tanks into Afghanistan, prompting Carter, who had entered office scolding the nation for its “inordinate fear of communism,” to concede that the invasion of Afghanistan “made a more dramatic change in my opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”
The final insult was delivered in late 1979 by the nascent Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran, which took 53 American diplomats hostage, parading them, blindfolded, for the world’s cameras. The “hostage crisis” lasted 444 days, and made Carter look ever more hapless. Having first forsworn a military response, he resorted to a rescue mission in April, but it failed ignominiously, with three helicopters crashing in the desert. The great political cartoonist Jeff McNelly (who died way too young in 2000), captured Carter’s diminishing stature by drawing him as a smaller and smaller figure behind the Resolute desk. And the Boston Globe spoke for many when a joke headline about a Carter speech accidentally made it into print: “More Mush from the Wimp.”
In retrospect, we’ve come to think that the majority of the electorate had soured on Jimmy Carter’s leadership, but it was far from clear at the time. Carter led Reagan by as much as 8 points into October. Even after the bungled rescue attempt (which cost the lives of eight U.S. servicemen), Carter’s lead slipped only slightly, declining from six points shortly before the botched operation to four points just after it.
Carter attempted to portray Reagan as a dangerous cowboy who might get the nation into a nuclear war. Many believed that the conservative Reagan would suffer a fate similar to Barry Goldwater’s in 1964. And much was made of his career as an actor. Despite the manifold troubles the country was saddled with in 1980, the incumbent president enjoyed a polling lead throughout most of the campaign.
And then came the one and only debate on October 28, just one week before the election (the debate was delayed as the campaigns squabbled over whether third party contender John Anderson would be included—he wasn’t, though he and Reagan had debated without the incumbent president in September). Most commentators frame debates as “gotcha” moments. They fixate on one-liners that they claim make or break candidates. Maybe. Certainly pundits tend to focus on zingers at the expense of substance. The Reagan/Carter debates are nearly always summed up by two lines: “There you go again” and “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
Actually, if you read the transcript, Reagan was blazingly good. Yes, his genial affect was in evidence, but he also had facts at his fingertips and made solid arguments. He was comfortable, well-versed, and in charge. Carter seemed peevish and defensive.
It was only after that debate that Reagan’s polling began to leap up. This was no warmonger. This was not an inexperienced actor attempting to play a leader. He was the real deal. And while he’d been governor of California for two terms, and on the campaign trail for nearly two years at that point, a significant number of Americans just didn’t know whether the stories about him were true. Though it puzzles observers like me, lots of people who vote don’t pay much attention until the last minute. In 1980, despite the bad economy, and the hostage crisis, and Carter seeming out of his depth, voters needed to see for themselves, through the crucible of a debate, if Reagan was the sort of man they could entrust with the presidency. Once they got a sense of Reagan, they moved en masse. He won 51 percent of the vote to Carter’s 41 percent (7 percent went for John Anderson).
In 2020, the electorate is even less satisfied with the incumbent than they were in 1980. Trump has trailed Biden consistently since Biden emerged as the Democratic frontrunner and later the nominee. As in 1980, the country is beset by troubles—a pandemic, a severe recession, and racial strife. And unlike Carter, Trump has never enjoyed majority support. The electorate is poised to fire the president.
The one remaining test they need is to see Biden pass is debate. Pundits keep saying that Trump and Biden are well-known figures and that there aren’t going to be any surprises in the race. I’m not so sure. Trump is known. But is Biden? Sure, people know he served in the Senate and as Barack Obama’s vice president. But do they have a real sense of how he talks, how he interacts with others, how he leads? Fewer than 20 million Americans watched the Democratic debates. And those committed enough to tune in to the intra-Democrat contest are probably not in doubt about which party to support in November. About 25 million watched some portion of the Democratic Convention, but how many of those were undecideds? Hard to know. An estimated 156 million Americans will vote in November.
Debates are not really about policy, but about whether you can imagine the person in the Oval Office. Yes, Trump inexplicably cleared this hurdle in 2016, but his opponent was a hate figure for half of the country. Biden is not hated. He is, I believe, hardly known at all. “There is some awareness that he is a longtime politician, but there is little substance or specificity behind the impressions,” consultants associated with the pro-Biden Super PAC Unite the Country told the Atlantic.
The Trump team has blundered by lowering expectations of Biden’s performance. They’ve been circulating fake videos supposedly showing Biden falling asleep during an interview, and asserting (falsely) that he supports defunding the police. This frequently comes up among disengaged voters in focus groups. They’ve seen something on Facebook or heard that Biden is “sundowning.” That messaging was, to quote Talleyrand, not just a crime, it was a mistake. The Biden who showed up at the Democratic convention and delivered a boffo acceptance speech blew away the Trump claims that he is senile. And Biden in debate can similarly dispatch the stories that he is sleepy or slow.
Biden isn’t always a stellar performer, but he doesn’t need to be. Assuming that Biden handles himself during the debates only as well as he managed the one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders, he will be fine, because people have already decided they want to fire Trump, they just want to be sure that Biden is competent. Should he have some zingers in his back pocket? Absolutely. Give the commentators what they want. But the most important task is to be well-informed, under control, and non-scary. Likable is nice too. And that comes naturally to Biden.
Throughout the campaign, Biden’s instincts have served him well. He didn’t sign on to Medicare-for-All or for defunding the police. He isn’t for open borders, far less for giving free medical care to everyone who crosses the Rio Grande. And during the coming debates, some people will discover this for the first time. If Biden can turn in three solid debates (or even just two), he will win the election in a landslide.
There, I said it.