The 1980 scenario: Late break away from the incumbent. We remember the 1980 election as Ronald Reagan’s landslide defeat of Jimmy Carter.
It didn’t look like that during the campaign. Carter led in polls much of the time. Sometimes the race looked like a 2000/2004-style long, hard slog through target states.
But Carter’s job rating was buoyed up that year by approval of his varied attempts to free the hostages in Iran. Underneath those numbers, his ratings on other foreign issues and the economy were weak.
Most voters were ready for an alternative, but were wary of Reagan, who was 69 years old and supposedly extreme conservative. He might have disqualified himself in a number of ways.
Instead, in his one debate with Carter, on the Thursday before the election, Reagan echoed a 1934 Franklin Roosevelt fireside chat, which he remembered but the press corps didn’t. “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” he asked voters.