Journalists love to identify turning points--the gaffe that sank a campaign, or the snappy comeback that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Academic studies regularly find no evidence that individual events make much difference, but the pundits are undeterred. In today's NY Times Book Review (it came out last month online), a review of Rick Perlstein's Reaganland by Evan Thomas talked about the 1980 election:
"At their final debate in late October, virtually tied in the polls, Carter started in on Reagan for having advocated, 'on four different occasions, for 'making Social Security a voluntary system, which would, in effect, very quickly bankrupt it.' ..... Now, Carter warned, Reagan was trying to block national health insurance."
"As Perlstein tells it, Reagan looked at Carter smilingly, his face betraying 'a hint of pity.' Then the old cowboy rocked back, and with an easy, genial chuckle, delivered the knockout blow. 'here you go again!' he said, beaming. The audience gave a 'burst of delighted laughter. … Jimmy Carter was being mean again.'
"With one deft jab, Reagan had finished off his opponent. A few days later, the Republican candidate won in an electoral vote landslide."
What's wrong with this story?
First, although 1980 was an "electoral vote landslide", Reagan got only 50.8% of the popular vote, against 41% for Carter, a 9.8% gap. That was a solid win, but closer to 1996, when Bill Clinton won by 49.2% to 40.7%, than to a real landslide like 1984 (58.8% to 40.6%).
Second, even after the final debate, Carter was close to Reagan in the polls. I found two that were taken between the debate and the election:
Carter Reagan Anderson
43% 44% 8% CBS/NYT Nov 1
43% 46% 7% Gallup Nov 1I don't know whether the problem was a late swing, miscalculation of likely voters, or something else, but the pre-election polls were pretty far off that year, overestimating Carter's vote by 3-4% and underestimating Reagan's by a similar margin. That's the difference between a close election and a substantial win.
Right after the election, several polls asked people how they had voted
41% 49% 7% CBS/NYT
43% 45% 6% Gallup
38% 50% 6% Roper
Most people who watched the debate thought Reagan did better than Carter, and "there you go again" may have contributed to that. But the idea that it was a "knockout blow" is implausible to start with--it's hard to imagine how that would cause anyone to change a vote from Carter to Reagan. If you want to stick with the boxing metaphors, you could say that he "ducked a punch."
The review also recounted another popular idea that may not be true: "In 1968, 17-year-old Patrick Caddell polled a working-class neighborhood in Jacksonville, Fla., about the upcoming presidential race for a high school project. He was surprised to hear, again and again, 'Wallace or Kennedy, either one.'" Thomas suggested that both appealed to a sense of anger in the working class. A few years ago, I had a post about hypothetical races involving Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, or Hubert Humphrey vs. Nixon and Wallace and there was no sign that Kennedy cut into Wallace's support. An alternative explanation for what Caddell found is that most southern whites were still Democrats back then. John F. Kennedy had been a popular president, and his assassination had added to his reputation. So when people in Jacksonville were asked who they liked for president, they just went for the names they knew--a Kennedy and the governor of the neighboring state.
[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]