In the last century, only a handful of incumbent presidents have lost an election. Until Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980, the last time a Republican took out a sitting president was in 1888, when Benjamin Harrison beat Grover Cleveland.
Inasmuch as Cleveland was a pro-business, conservative Democrat -- known today as "a Republican" -- and also because he was defeated more than a century ago, the Reagan playbook is the only one worth studying.
Reagan didn't beat Carter by calling him a "radical," a "socialist," a "Kenyan colonialist" or a "fake Christian." Part of being smart enough to be president is being smart enough to know how to win. Presidential candidates: Leave the name-calling to professionals.
He didn't do it by running as a Christian warrior, though he was certainly a Christian. He didn't prattle about contraception and stay-at-home mothers. And to the best of my recollection, Reagan never proposed colonizing the moon.
Reagan beat the odds and took out an incumbent by waging a charm campaign to win over independents, moderates and undecideds.
Reagan strategist and pollster Richard B. Wirthlin told The Washington Post that Reagan's objective in his debate with Carter was to come across as a reasonable candidate who could appeal to moderates. Deputy campaign manager William E. Timmons told The New York Times: "Reagan will be calm, cool and collected." Other Reagan advisers told the Times their strategy was to make Reagan look "knowledgeable and reasonable," not rash or risky, in order to reassure undecided voters.
The sainted Ed Meese, Reagan's chief of staff, said Reagan would simply "point out the failures of the Carter record." Not call him a socialist or fake Christian. Just a failure.
(Reagan's debate crib sheet: 1. Appear reasonable and calm; 2. Don't propose colonizing the moon.)
Portrayed by Democrats as a shoot-from-the-hip cowboy itching to get us in a hot war with the Soviets, a few weeks before the election, Reagan bought a half-hour of TV time to present himself as the very opposite of a firebrand.
The ad showcased testimonials from the likes of Henry Kissinger and a smiling Reagan reassuring voters that "the cause of peace knows no party."
Reagan stayed out of the weeds on highly charged debates on social issues, although he was unequivocally pro-life and pro-religion.
One month before the election, The Christian Science Monitor reported that Reagan "ended a campaign week by dipping into the Bible belt ... gingerly."
Speaking to a group of religious broadcasters, Reagan said: "Because you are professionals, I know how much you respect and strongly support -- as I do -- the separation of church and state." (Though at other times during the campaign, he also said that that principle should not mean separation of country from religion, adding, "We are a nation under God.")
It was Reagan's opponent, Jimmy Carter, who played up the fact that he was a born-again Christian -- albeit a born-again Christian who took 25 years to say that he was not "convinced" that "Jesus Christ would approve abortion."
Bravely spoken, sir!
For Evangelicals concerned about a Mormon president -- or any Christians still trying to make sense of the Carter presidency -- recall that Martin Luther said he'd rather be governed by a smart Turk than a dumb Christian.
Reagan's charm campaign worked so well that even the liberal U.S. News & World Report remarked that Reagan "presented a more reasonable, pragmatic image than in 1976."
Reagan was able to sell challenging ideas to moderates because he wasn't being constantly upstaged by loud-mouthed idiots attacking him for being insufficiently pure (as governor of California, he raised taxes more than any other governor in U.S. history and signed the most liberal abortion law in the country) or muddying the water with utterly irrelevant battles about contraception.
Liberals never dreamed that they would get so much assistance from alleged conservatives in undermining Obama's most formidable opponent!