Trump’s Carter Problems vs. Biden’s Reagan Possibilities

The low approval rating and various political headwinds for President Biden have invited comparisons with another first-term Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, and the challenges he faced running for re-election in 1980. Many Republicans are thinking about his defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan, bullish that Donald Trump also has what it takes to oust a flagging incumbent.

It is true that the 2024 race is shaping up to be a 1980 replay of sorts, but with an important twist. The more significant comparisons could be between Mr. Trump and Mr. Carter and their difficulty in winning over voters and, even more, between Mr. Biden and Mr. Reagan and their attempts to address doubts about their age — which are flaring again for Mr. Biden.

To be sure, Carter-Biden comparisons are real: Mr. Biden’s third-year job approval average was the lowest for a sitting president since Mr. Carter’s, and Americans were dissatisfied with the economy and with the direction of the country under both men.

But what became increasingly clear throughout 1980 was that there was a ceiling on voter support for Mr. Carter. The electorate had already decided it didn’t want to give him a second term. Mr. Carter’s job approval at the end of March was close to his final 41 percent share of the vote in November.

In this year’s race, it is Mr. Trump who closely resembles Mr. Carter in the most important ways, including his ceiling of political support.

For one, the most galvanizing and divisive figures in 1980 and today were Mr. Carter and Mr. Trump. As with Mr. Carter, most voters have firm opinions about Mr. Trump. His ability to inspire his base is matched only by his ability to alienate the rest of the electorate — as evidenced by the Republican Party taking beatings in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections.

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