Whenever Trump’s bad general election polling comes up, there is inevitably someone that says, “Yeah, but Reagan came from behind to win!” The two most relevant differences between Trump in 2016 and Reagan in 1980 are the economic conditions in the country and the candidates’ favorability numbers. Harry Enten commented on the latter earlier today:
Closest poll I found to today’s point in 80 campaign had Reagan’s net fav at -5 w/ general public. Trump averages -33 right now. #sameohwait
— Harry Enten (@ForecasterEnten) March 25, 2016
Reagan may have trailed Carter by a wide margin at some point in the election, but he wasn’t loathed by the vast majority of the electorate. Trump is. Even if his unfavorability numbers go down a little after he becomes the nominee they will still be the worst of any general election candidate on record. Reagan also had the advantage of running against an incumbent at a time of high inflation and high unemployment during an ongoing hostage crisis overseas. The Republican nominee this year won’t benefit from any of those things, and Trump will be hamstrung by his staggering unpopularity.
Another problem for the GOP nominee this year is that he will be struggling to reassemble the losing Romney coalition. There is no question of creating a new, larger coalition as Reagan did. The question that will be answered this year is how small the Trump-rump GOP is. Trump is averaging 38.8% against Clinton right now, and he will probably end up doing better than that if there isn’t an independent spoiler candidate in the race, but I wouldn’t expect it to be much better. Trying to spin Trump’s very bad numbers by invoking Reagan’s 1980 campaign is even more desperate than the spin from Romney supporters four years ago when they assured us that Romney was certain to win. It’s this same refusal to accept unwelcome evidence that caused so many Republicans to be bewildered by the 2012 result. There’s no excuse to make the same mistake again this year.