At the beginning of November 1980, one week before Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in the presidential election, Henry Fairlie, then writing regularly for The Spectator from Washington, finally slid off the fence and made a firm prediction. ‘Jimmy Carter will be the next President of the United States,’ he wrote in the first sentence of his column. Carter, he went on, was ‘personally a not very agreeable man’ but had a more persuasive ‘political character’ than Reagan, so would win the election. Although a much-admired political commentator, who had made his name as a columnist at The Spectator in London, where he first gave the name ‘the Establishment’ to the social network running Britain, and who emigrated to the United States in 1965 when threatened with a libel action after insulting Lady Antonia Fraser on television, Fairlie got it all wildly wrong. But the opinion polls got it pretty wrong, too, for they predicted a very close result; instead, Carter was thoroughly trounced.
There are striking parallels between the 1980 election and this year’s one. Reagan’s campaign slogan, ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’, was shamelessly stolen and reused by Donald Trump as his own battle cry. Like Jimmy Carter, who had already served as president for four years, Hillary Clinton claimed far greater political experience — as a first lady, senator and secretary of state — than her opponent. (‘A Tested and Trustworthy Team’ was how Carter’s campaign promoted him and his running mate, Walter Mondale.) And Trump emulated Reagan by selling optimism to a dispirited electorate, while Hillary followed Carter’s example by accusing her opponent of stirring up hatred and racism.
The 1980 campaign also foreshadowed the one of 2016 by being unusually confrontational and featuring candidates widely disliked and distrusted.