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By Bill Wichert October 1, 2012

Chris Christie claims Ronald Reagan won 40 states after trailing Jimmy Carter prior to 1980 debate

Mitt Romney may have hit a rough patch on the campaign trail, but Gov. Chris Christie recently suggested a winning debate performance this week could propel the Republican presidential candidate to victory in November.

Just like the 1980 debate took Ronald Reagan from trailing in the polls to winning 40 states on Election Day, the governor said.

The New Jersey governor offered that history lesson last week as Romney and President Barack Obama gear up for their first debate Wednesday. Obama has been leading Romney in most national polls.

"Ask Ronald Reagan if he were around, you know, who was behind in the polls in 1980 going into the debate with Jimmy Carter and then turned around 10 days later and won 40 states," Christie, a Republican, said at a Sept. 24 news conference. "These debates matter. They’re very important."

It’s true that Reagan won 44 states in the 1980 election, but it’s not entirely accurate for Christie to say Reagan "was behind in the polls" going into the debate with Carter.

Leading up to that Oct. 28, 1980 debate -- a week before Election Day -- some polls showed Carter with a slight advantage over Reagan, but other polls had Reagan ahead of the president. Still, given the margins of error attached to the polls, the race appeared too close to call, according to various news articles.

The governor’s office did not respond to two e-mails seeking comment.

Let’s review some of those poll results.

In a Gallup poll released the day before the debate, Carter was leading Reagan by three percentage points, 45 percent to 42 percent. That poll was based on a sample of 1,100 registered voters, including 800 likely voters.

Another poll done for ABC News and released around the same time offered the exact opposite results: Reagan stood at 45 percent and Carter at 42 percent among likely voters.

But news articles said that because of the margins of error for those two polls, the "race is essentially even" and a "virtual dead heat."

An Associated Press-NBC News poll around the same time showed Reagan with a greater lead over Carter. Among likely voters, 42 percent supported Reagan and 36 percent backed Carter. That poll still had a margin of error of three percent.

"Generally, comparable results from all these polls fall within the error margins of such surveys, meaning the race is really too close to call," the Associated Press wrote.

The week before the debate, a CBS News/New York Times poll showed Carter leading Reagan, 43 percent to 41 percent among undecided voters. But given that poll’s sampling error, "Mr. Carter’s lead thus was highly uncertain, and it is quite possible that Mr. Reagan may actually be somewhat ahead," according to a New York Times article.

Still, Reagan’s debate performance has been considered a deciding factor in his ultimate victory.

"It is my contention that there was significant change in presidential preference by the public starting with the Carter/Reagan debate that accelerated through election day," Warren J. Mitofsky, a pollster for CBS News, later wrote.

However, leading up to Election Day, polls failed to capture the scope of Reagan's landslide win. As Mitofsky noted, all of the major published polls "seriously understated" Reagan’s margin of victory over Carter.

In terms of the popular vote, Reagan received about 51.6 percent, beating Carter’s roughly 41.7 percent. The 1980 presidential race also included Independent candidate John B. Anderson, who received about 6.7 percent of the popular vote.

Our ruling

At a news conference, Christie claimed Ronald Reagan "was behind in the polls in 1980 going into the debate with Jimmy Carter and then turned around 10 days later and won 40 states."

Reagan went on to win 44 states, but it was not necessarily the comeback victory described by Christie. Reagan was behind in some polls and ahead of Carter in others. Given the margins of error for the polls, the race was "too close to call" and a "virtual dead heat," articles show.

We rate the statement Half True.

To comment on this ruling, go to

Our Sources

The Star-Ledger, Mitt Romney 'had a bad week,' Gov. Christie says in wake of 'victims' comments, Sept. 24, 2012

The Washington Post, Reagan's "Comeback", Oct. 13, 2008

The New York Times, History Suggests McCain Faces an Uphill Battle, Oct. 12, 2008

American Statistical Association, The 1980 pre-election polls: A review of disparate methods and results, 1981

The Monkey Cage, What Really Happened in the 1980 Presidential Campaign, Aug. 9, 2012

Slate, The Myth of Jimmy Carter's "Eight-Point Lead" Over Reagan, Sept. 24, 2012

The New Republic, Exploding the Reagan 1980 Comeback Myth, Sept. 12, 2012

Gallup, U.S. Presidential Election Center, accessed Sept. 24, 2012

United Press International, Preview story on Reagan-Carter debate, Oct. 28, 1980

The Washington Post, Carter Goes Into Debate With Lead in New Poll, Oct. 28, 1980

Associated Press, Carter, Reagan: Face-to-Face at Last, Oct. 28, 1980

Associated Press, Election Poll Says Quarter of Likely Voters Haven't Made Up Their Minds, Oct. 28, 1980

Associated Press, New Polls Show Tight Race; Debate Site Is Readied, Oct. 27, 1980

Associated Press, Poll Shows Carter and Reagan in Virtual Dead Heat, Oct. 25, 1980

Associated Press, Story on Associated Press-NBC News poll, Oct. 27, 1980

Associated Press, ABC News-Lou Harris Poll Says Presidential Race Dead Heat, Oct. 27, 1980

Associated Press, Story on Reagan-Carter polls, Oct. 22, 1980

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Historical Election Results: Electoral Votes, by State, accessed Sept. 26-27, 2012

The New York Times, Poll shows President has pulled to even position with Reagan, Oct. 23, 1980

The Washington Post, Candidate Reagan: Always Underrated By His Opposition; Reagan's Races: Jokes in the Bar, Votes in the Booth, Nov. 6, 1980

The New York Times, Carter Post-Mortem: Debate Hurt But Wasn’t Only Cause For Defeat, Nov. 9, 1980

Real Clear Politics, General Election: Romney vs. Obama, polling data, accessed Sept. 27, 2012

Huffington Post, 2012 General Election: Romney vs. Obama, polling data, accessed Sept. 27, 2012

The American Presidency Project, 1980 Presidential Election Results, accessed Sept. 27, 2012

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Chris Christie claims Ronald Reagan won 40 states after trailing Jimmy Carter prior to 1980 debate

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