Gary Pearce: Ghost of election years past haunts Democrats

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 9, 2020

By Gary Pearce

Democrats are haunted this year by election ghosts. They’re suffering a form of PTSD: past-Tuesdays stress disorder.

They’re haunted by 1968: “The riots and protests will help Trump like they helped Nixon. The Silent Majority elected him. I’m afraid it’s going to happen again.”

They’re haunted by 1988: “George H.W. Bush was way behind Michael Dukakis in the summer. Then Bush ran the Willie Horton and and won. I’m afraid it’s going to happen again.”

They’re especially haunted by 2016. “The polls said Hillary Clinton would win. I’ll never forget how sick I felt when Trump won. I’m afraid it’s going to happen again.”

They’re like Charlie Brown, waiting for Lucy to pull the football away again, and leave them flat on their backs, again.

But Democrats’ obsession with past elections makes it hard to have a clear perception of this election. 2020 isn’t 1968, or 1988 or even 2016. America has changed dramatically these last four years, let alone the last 32 and 52 years.

President Trump has a big problem that Nixon didn’t have in 1968, Bush didn’t have in 1988 and Trump didn’t have in 2016: He’s an incumbent president presiding over a deadly pandemic, searing racial tensions and a collapsing economy. And voters have a negative view of his performance.

In its rolling aggregate of polls, the website FiveThirtyEight said last week that Trump’s approval rating was 43.6% and his disapproval rating was 52.2%. That is, more than half of Americans disapprove of the job he’s doing.

Yes, he could still be reelected, but that’s a harsh environment for an incumbent.

One experienced Democratic pollster told me, “I think it’s baked in that people don’t trust or believe Trump and think he’s not competent. Trump is the incumbent, and with no third-party alternatives, the key number is 50%. Trump hasn’t ever been at that level against Biden. He’s only been at that level in job approval a few weeks in over three and a half years.”

Another Democratic operative said, “Trump can’t win it, but Biden can lose it.”

Much of Democrats’ worry centers on race. That played a big part in 1968 and 1988. But racial attitudes have changed. We saw that when most white Americans didn’t object to removing Confederate statues and monuments. They’ve also been appalled by videos of police brutality.

News coverage of riots and violence worries Democrats, and rightly so. But news coverage of COVID-19 and the bad economy hurts Trump.

Here’s an election to compare: 1980. An incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, was running for reelection. The economy was a disaster. The Iranian hostage crisis had dragged on nearly a year.

Carter’s opponent, Reagan, would be the oldest man ever elected president. Carter attacked him as a dangerous right-wing ideologue who couldn’t be trusted. Reagan brushed it off: “There you go again.”

In their one debate, one week before the election, Reagan came across as a reassuring figure. He asked Americans a stark, simple question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

The polls were close to the end. The last weekend, with news focusing on the one-year anniversary of Iran taking Americans hostage, Carter’s support collapsed. He won only 49 electoral votes. Reagan won 489.

Americans were weary of Carter. They wanted change. But they wanted to know if they could trust Reagan with the presidency. Reagan earned their trust.

This year, this campaign is about whether Joe Biden can earn Americans’ trust.

Gary Pearce blogs at