1980 vs. 1988

With the polls tightening, it's time to pause and reflect on whether 2008 is going to be more like Reagan's first election -- or his third.

Published August 21, 2008 2:32PM (EDT)

The CBS/Wall Street Journal poll shows a close, within the margin of error race. With more evidence that the race has tightened, one can feel the panic among Democrats and within the Obama campaign.

OK: Time to pause, take a breath. Though candidate effects absolutely make a difference, especially given Obama’s ceiling-breaking candidacy, what really matters is whether the fundamental dynamics of this cycle are more like 1980 or 1988.

If 2008 is more like 1980, the summer dip in the polls for Obama ultimately will not matter. Most of those undecideds will eventually break his way once he demonstrates at the convention and in the debates that he is ready. (That's not a given, but the campaign knows what it has to do.) Right now, Obama's readiness problem may be more perceptual than actual, but it is a problem.

If 2008 is more like 1988, however, Obama has a bigger problem. This was the election in which George H.W. Bush was, in effect, running for Ronald Reagan's third term.

So ask yourself: Does this election cycle -- given the unpopularity of the president, the public's disgruntlement with Iraq and people's worries about the economy -- really look like 1988? No way. That doesn't mean Obama should put his campaign on cruise control. He could blow it.

But these summer polls are just that -- summer polls. If, after the conventions, McCain keeps rising, that will be a much more significant indication that Obama's troubles run deeper.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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