Will Trump Serve Only Four Years Like President Jimmy Carter Did?

U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions about his response to the violence, injuries and deaths at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He spoke to the media in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York City on August 15. Trump's approval rating recently decreased to 34 percent. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Newsweek published this story under the headline "Carter Is the Underdog" on June 23, 1980. The story detailed Carter's approval ratings compared to Reagan's in the 1980 election. While still in office in 1979, Carter's approval rating diminished to 28 percent. As President Donald Trump's approval rating recently declined to 34 percent, Newsweek is republishing the story.

As he heads to his coronation at the Republican convention in Detroit next month, Ronald Reagan is gaining considerable ground in the presidential race against Jimmy Carter. According to the latest Newsweek Poll, * he has passed Carter in voter preference, 45 percent to 43. Allowing for statistical error, the election would be a tossup if it were held today. And if John Anderson runs as an independent, the Newsweek Poll provides strong evidence that he would hurt Carter more than Reagan. In a three-way race, Reagan widens his lead over Carter to 40 to 36. Anderson draws only 19 percent—no more than he got when he first announced his independent candidacy two months ago.

* For this Newsweek Poll, The Gallup Organization interviewed a national sample of 1,080 registered voters by telephone between June 5 and June 8. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points. Contributing to the analysis were Andrew Kohut and Nancy Nygreen of The Gallup Organization and Christopher Arterton, associate professor of political science at Yale University. (The NEWSWEEK Poll (c) 1980 NEWSWEEK, Inc.)

The numbers do not show a sharp decline for Carter, whose ratings on most important issues are about what they were last March. Rather they reflect a dramatic increase in the positive view of Reagan as a leader. He is viewed as forceful, consistent on the issues and able to handle both the nation's economic problems and, to a somewhat lesser degree, delicate matters of foreign policy as well. In a Newsweek Poll last March, only 43 percent expressed confidence in Reagan's ability to deal with the economy; now the figure is 63. Similarly, Reagan's confidence rating in foreign policy has jumped from 41 to 60. On both issues, Carter's ratings remain in the mid-40s. Voters also tend to see Reagan's positions on defense and social spending as close to their own; both Carter and Anderson seem more liberal.

Reagan's strength at this point is both broader and more solid than the president's. In a three-way race, he has a 10-point lead over Carter among voters over 50, and he splits the younger voters almost evenly with the president. He leads among those with incomes over $ 15,000, runs even with Carter in the $ 10,000-to-$ 15,000 range and even makes a respectable showing among the poorest voters—although Carter retains a traditional Democratic edge there. Reagan is particularly strong in the West, his home turf, but also runs slightly ahead in the East and Carter's native South and just behind Carter in the Midwest.Among those with a college education (normally the most likely to vote), Reagan is preferred by 45 percent, compared with 26 percent each for Carter and Anderson. Reagan even gets about a quarter of those voters who normally consider themselves Democrats.

If the recession deepens, Reagan may even get stronger, the Newsweek Poll suggests. Half of those surveyed feel their own economic situation has worsened in the last year—and they are the decidedly pro-Reagan, anti-Carter half of the population. Economic problems also explain why so many Democrats have defected from Carter. In last March's survey, Democrats who favored Reagan indicated concern over foreign policy. Now, they also cite economic worries.

Intensity of feeling about a candidate can be crucial in getting registered voters to cast ballots come Election Day. This year, according to the Newsweek Poll, only about a third of each candidate's supporters say they feel "strongly" about their man, but they have strong negative feelings about the other contenders. Here, too, Reagan has an advantage. Only a third of those who support Carter or Anderson say they "strongly" oppose Reagan, but half of those who support Reagan or Anderson say they strongly oppose Carter. Anderson provokes the least amount of strong opposition and thus has greater potential to make converts.

Personal Qualities: Carter does have some important advantages in his contest with Reagan. While Reagan is perceived more positively on leadership characteristics (ability to inspire confidence and to get the job done), Carter retains an edge in the personal qualities (ethical standards, intelligence, concern for the average citizen) that have always been an important element in his appeal. Perhaps more important, the president is seen as better able than Reagan or Anderson to keep the nation out of war, a theme already firmly incorporated in the Carter re-election strategy. and even though U.S. Embassy personnel are still being held hostage in Iran, a 53 percent majority of voters believes the Iranian situation would have developed as it has regardless of Carter's policies. The president is also helped somewhat by the simple fact of his incumbency; 50 percent agreed that their votes would be influenced by the belief that "the country loses a lot of time whenever a president leaves office after only one term and a new person has to learn the job."

Carter's support among Democrats might grow significantly if the divisions generated by his bitter primary battle with Senator Edward Kennedy are repaired. But party unity is proving elusive for the president. Fewer than half the Democrats surveyed in the Newsweek Poll said they thought that Kennedy should withdraw; worse yet for Carter, fully 56 percent of Democrats (53 percent of all voters) agree with Kennedy that the president should release his convention delegates to vote for whomever they wish in New York City in August. There is little evidence, however, that another Democrat would do better against Reagan. In a two-way race, Kennedy himself is swamped 58 to 36; Vice President Walter Mondale, often mentioned as a man the convention might turn to, also trails Reagan 51 to 41.

Detrimental: Carter is also threatened seriously by Anderson. Nineteen percent of the president's supporters in a two-way contest switch to Anderson in a three-way race, compared with only 12 percent of Reagan's backers. And the effect is even more detrimental in two areas of the country that are critical for Carter: in the Midwest, the only region where the president currently leads Reagan head to head, Anderson's candidacy almost wipes out Carter's lead; in the East, Anderson takes a quarter of carter's vote and lengthens Reagan's lead—which could be devastating in the important industrial states there. Carter also loses for more support to Anderson than does Reagan among those with higher incomes and high-school or college educations—who are generally more likely to vote.

Anderson has problems of his own, however, and he may constitute less of a threat as the campaign moves closer to Election Day. Though he now has the support of about one in five voters, about half of them said they would be less likely to vote for him if they felt their votes would tip the election to either of the other candidates. The Illinois congressman was not ranked more highly than Reagan or Carter on any qualities of leadership or personal character, and the independent nature of his effort may itself cost him votes: 56 percent of all those sampled said they felt it was important for a president to be from one of the two major parties to govern effectively.

The bright side for Anderson is that he provokes the least strenuous opposition from supporters of other candidates and that awareness of him—and confidence in his abilities—has increased markedly in recent months. In an April Newsweek Poll, for example, 29 percent of those surveyed said they had confidence in Anderson's ability to handle the nation's economy while 32 percent expressed little or no confidence and 39 percent had no opinion. In the most recent survey, those with no opinion had shrunk to 24 percent and those expressing confidence had risen to 41 percent. In foreign policy as well, the number with no opinion on Anderson's ability fell from 42 percent to 32 percent and the number expressing confidence rose from 25 percent to 35 percent. The public has been sufficiently impressed by Anderson to think he deserves a fair hearing: four out of five people said he should be included in any Carter-Reagan debate.

Options: Carter must try to win back Democrats and Republicans who now lean to Anderson. Many of them are among the most liberal voters in the nation, as are the loyal Kennedy supporters that Carter also needs. But in wooing both groups, Carter runs the risk of moving further to the left of voter sentiment, making it even more difficult for him to overcome the growing respect and support for Reagan's conservative policies. Another challenge for the president is to undermine that Reagan support—by playing up existing public fears that Reagan might lead the country into war, by attacking his record as governor of California for eight years and by somehow drawing Reagan into less-acceptable policy positions. The powers of incumbency, peace in the Democratic party and some improvement in the economy could help Carter, but for the moment he looks more and more like the underdog.