Here’s the myth of that debate. With one week to go until Election Day, when the two met for the first and only time, Carter was up by eight points. Americans just couldn’t get behind the idea of a 69-year-old former actor being presidential material. More importantly, Reagan was crazy, a Republican from the fringe with ideas about government that were far outside political norms. But Reagan proved them all wrong on October 28, 1980—“There you go again” was the evening’s memorable moment—and the nation decided that Reagan had the right stuff to be president. A week later, he won a landslide: 44 states to Carter’s six.
There’s no doubt that many in Trump’s camp—particularly Roger Ailes, who advised Reagan and has helped Trump with debate preparation—are hoping that Trump will do something similar tonight. There are certainly similarities between Reagan and Trump and 1980 and 2016. Polls are tightening, but a significant portion of the country does not think that Trump is fit for the job. If he can convince voters otherwise tonight, he could win handily.
Unfortunately for Trump and Co., the myth isn’t quite true. The race was much closer than eight points when the Carter and Reagan debated in 1980—they didn’t poll elections back then like they do now, as Nate Cohn wrote for The New Republic in 2012. (The convention bounces in 1980 also pointed toward a Reagan win in 1980. They didn’t point to a Trump victory in 2016.)
The country is also significantly more polarized today than it was back then, which means that there are fewer voters to swing. Finally, there’s the issue of Trump himself. Trump may very well go on stage and seem very polite and not talk about his penis once. But Trump has the disadvantage of having made repeated racist and sexist remarks both over the course of the campaign and the course of his entire life. And unlike Reagan, he’s shown an authoritarian streak that Reagan never had. Trump may look to the past for inspiration, but he’s in uncharted waters.