This year has been fascinating for many reasons, few of them good ones mind you. And some believe that, in 2020, we’re in an election of historic proportions, just as we were 40 years ago in 1980.
Then, as now, we have a nation in crisis and incredibly high stakes. Just like in 1980, the Republican Donald Trump has emerged as an underdog against the Democrat Joe Biden. Like Jimmy Carter in 1980, whom the sycophantic media assumed would trounce Ronald Reagan, the knights of the keyboard in the newsrooms hope Mr. Biden is going to use Mr. Trump as a floor mop this November. But pundits are wrong from time to time — shockingly — and in 1980 Reagan demolished whatever hopes Mr. Carter had when they debated for the first and only time on Oct. 28, 1980.
Mr. Carter went into that debate convinced he had the election in the bag, and to be fair he had good reason. He was up in the polls, and Reagan was a political outsider who four years earlier had only narrowly lost the Republican nomination to Gerald Ford. Traditionally, Americans don’t like to throw an incumbent president out of office. Most of the media thought Reagan was a joke, so perhaps Mr. Carter can be forgiven for thinking he would walk all over Reagan.
The problem was that Reagan actually came to play, and in the course of 90 minutes he utterly annihilated Mr. Carter’s record.
While Mr. Carter gesticulated and talked about getting his advice from his then-12-year-old daughter, Amy, on nuclear weapons, Reagan was able to convince Americans that he offered a better way forward and that they were, indeed, not better off after four years of Mr. Carter’s malaise. He was able to demonstrate he was the stronger choice in the general election and made an appealing case to voters on both sides of the aisle. The phrase “Reagan Democrat” came into use in 1980.
Reagan had a good case to make after four years of inflation, high gas prices, Soviet international aggressiveness, and the added insult of Mr. Carter telling Americans things were only going to get worse and scarcer. Adding to the high drama, this debate was the most watched in American history and stands today as the second-most watched with more than 80 million viewers. Also the Reagan camp did an excellent job managing expectations while the Carter team did a very poor job.
The results spoke for themselves. Immediately after the debate, Reagan’s support in the polls jumped to a three-point lead over Mr. Carter. And one week later, winning an electoral and popular vote landslide, Reagan was the president-elect while Mr. Carter was getting ready to file for unemployment benefits.
Mr. Trump is facing a similar set of circumstances. He’s down in many national polls (which, let’s be honest, doesn’t mean much in today’s world) and a Biden landslide seems to be a foregone conclusion in the minds of some of the punditry.
Like Reagan, Mr. Trump has the opportunity to give himself a boost through the debates. Mr. Trump can make Mr. Biden look like he is not ready for prime time on the debate stage. Mr. Biden has a political record almost half a century long, which gives Mr. Trump more than enough ammunition to rip Mr. Biden apart in three debates.
It’s clear this prospect has the Biden campaign and Democratic leaders worried. Why else would Mr. Biden have stayed in his basement for so long? Why else would Nancy Pelosi have said a few weeks back that she doesn’t think there needs to be debates?
A strong debate performance giving Mr. Trump a late-election boost is entirely possible. It happened 40 years ago with Reagan, and it could happen again this year. Mr. Carter and Reagan only debated once, and that was enough to help propel Reagan to an unprecedented victory. If Mr. Trump plays his cards right, he has not one but three opportunities to dominate Mr. Biden and show the American people what an out-of-touch, career politician Mr. Biden truly is.
The 1980 debate was ultimately about the future. Reagan won that debate and won the future for the GOP. The 2020 debate will again be about the future. Mr. Trump has a chance to win that debate as well.
• Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian, is the author of five books on Reagan, taught a class at UVa. on Reagan and lectures often at the Reagan Presidential Library.