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Carter Redux?

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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.

Speaking of women, they've been increasing their share of the electorate since 1980 as well. About equal numbers of men and women voted in 1980 (59.4 percent of women and 59.1 percent of men). Men have been voting in fewer numbers since. In 2008, 60.4 percent of women voted, compared with only 55.7 percent of men. This is good for Democrats, since women without husbands tend to vote for Democrats.

The electorate is less white than it was more than a generation ago. In 1980, 88 percent of the electorate was white. In 2008, only 74 percent of voters were white. Hispanics, blacks and Asians all demonstrate a preference for the Democrats.

While these demographic and social factors would seem to suggest that Democrats are invincible, voters are not so rigidly typecast. Besides, presidential elections are not won by popular votes but by states. In 2008, Obama won Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada, and Florida. Virginia has since elected a Republican governor who is very popular. North Carolina's unemployment rate is higher than the national average, and Nevada's is the highest in the country. Nevada's large Mormon population will help Romney. As for Florida, Democrats lost the governorship, four house seats and a senate seat to the Republicans in 2010. The significant Jewish vote in the state is less enthusiastic about Obama than it was four years ago.

Voters in the Northeast have been shying from Republicans for several election cycles. A former Massachusetts governor may go down well with them. Even liberal New Jersey is learning to love its conservative Republican governor.

For more than 50 years, we are often reminded, no incumbent president has been re-elected when unemployment was above 7.2 percent. It's possible, in light of the changing face of the American voter, that 2012 could buck that trend. But the persistent malaise of the economy gives Obama no opening to argue that things are improving.

It will be up to Romney to convince these unmarried, disproportionately female, multi-ethnic, government-dependent, under-taxed American voters that their lives -- not just those of the wealthy few -- will improve if he is elected. It's a steeper climb than it was in 1980.


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