Every new datum on economic stagnation -- such as Thursday's Labor Department announcement that unemployment claims remain at a three-month high -- increases the temptation to compare the 2012 presidential race to 1980's. Both years feature a Democratic incumbent, elected on a surge of high hopes, who must face the voters after four years of disappointment. In both cases, the economy is a drag on the president. In both cases, the incumbent has attempted to demonize his opposition in order to avoid running on his record. In both cases, the challenger was regarded, at first, as easy to defeat.
It's seductive to believe that 2012 will turn out the way 1980 did, with voters concluding that the challenger was not the ogre the president warned of, seeing him instead as the more presidential of the two.
It may happen. But the Romney campaign and those who wish it well have to grapple with the fact that the country has changed in the past 32 years in ways that don't advantage Republicans.
One of Reagan's campaign themes arose out of the anti-tax mood of the electorate in 1980. Proposition 13 had passed in California in 1978 and was swiftly imitated around the nation. Arguing that the Democrats were the party of "tax and spend" had resonance when more Americans paid federal taxes. But the federal tax rate on an average family of four in 1980 had reached a 50-year high. It has been declining steeply since then. According to the Urban Institute/Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, a family of four in 2011 would pay only 5.6 percent of its income in federal income taxes and another 8.7 in payroll taxes. Today about 50 percent of tax filers pay zero in federal taxes, and 70 percent of taxpayers take more from the IRS than they contribute to it.
At the same time, the number of Americans who receive government checks in one form or another has ballooned. In 1983, less than a third of households received a monthly government check. By 2011, 49 percent were getting a government subsidy. One out of 7 Americans today is receiving food stamps -- including 1 in 4 children.
Married voters tend to lean Republican. Singles vote Democrat. In 1980, 60 percent of American households featured a married couple. By 2011, only 48 percent did. Married women voted 53-47 for John McCain in 2008, but there weren't enough of them. Obama carried single women by 65-35.