What can Romney learn from past comebacks?

What can Mitt Romney learn from previous candidates that trailed but won? EPA/Michael Reynolds

With Mitt Romney entering October as the decided underdog it seems fitting to revisit some past presidential election comebacks. And while these cases are entertaining in and of themselves, they also offer insight into the state of the current race.

A conversation about political upsets inevitably starts with Harry Truman’s victory over New York Governor Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election. Truman, who assumed the presidency in 1945 after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, struggled to quell divisions within his own party and by the spring of 1948 had seen his approval rating sink to a seemingly fatal 36 percent.

However, the president refused to roll over. He embarked on several cross-country campaign tours and offered harsh critiques of Dewey and the ‘do-nothing’ Republican-controlled Congress. Republicans, Truman warned, would undo all the achievements of the New Deal era.

Truman’s fiery rhetoric is usually seen as the catalyst of his remarkable resurgence. In reality though, his victory was less about campaign strategy than the fact that the fundamentals of the race were quickly shifting in the incumbent’s favour. Political scientist James Campbell explains:

“Until recently, for instance, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) figured that GDP in the first half of 1948 (leading into the Truman-Dewey contest) was growing at a healthy 4.1% rate. The BEA’s latest series indicates that this greatly understated growth at the outset of the 1948 campaign. The BEA now figures that the economy was growing at a sizzling 6.8%, a revision that helps explain Truman’s miraculous comeback.”

The other much-discussed presidential “comeback” is Ronald Reagan’s decisive victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. The contest has become a something of a rallying point for the Romney campaign and it’s not hard to see why. Just before the election, undecided voters broke strongly towards the challenger, turning what had been a close election into a landslide.

However, the comeback narrative is misleading. There were a couple of late October polls that had Carter ahead. But that doesn’t mean he was actually leading. Political scientist John Sides has aggregated the polls to show the state of the race throughout 1980. As you can see from the graph, Reagan had taken the lead by late May and opened up an enormous gap after the Republican convention. The contest would tighten again but Reagan never relinquished his advantage.

Much is made of Reagan’s strong debate performance a week before the election. But, by this time, the Republican challenger was already a fairly solid favourite thanks to an abysmal economy.

These cases are a reminder not to read too much into the ins and outs of the campaign. It’s not that a strong debate performance or campaign tactics are inconsequential. These things matter. But election analysis often misses the forest for the trees; focusing narrowly on supposed turning points while ignoring underlying economic trends that are more often than not directing the race. Consequently, you end up retrofitting a misleading ‘comeback’ narrative that doesn’t fit the data.

These examples also illustrate the extent of the challenge that Romney faces. The Republican nominee trails by four points and so far hasn’t generated any headway in the general election. Based on history and the current state of the race it’s unlikely that the upcoming debates or another campaign recalibration will be enough to close the gap.

In August, conservative columnist Rich Lowry urged Romney to “Give em ‘hell, Mitt”: a reference to Truman’s no holds-barred campaign in 1948. It might be sound advice. But, if Romney really wants to follow Truman’s path to the White House; and isn’t afraid to be a little self-serving, it’s probably time to start hoping for some bad economic news.