In modern times, three sitting presidents, Ford, Carter, and Bush (41) have been defeated. What does this tell the Romney campaign?
One thing is the similarity of the three presidents. All three saw their high approval ratings drop as the economy worsened and all three lost to a candidate with a tightly-run campaign. This spells trouble for President Obama. Don't think for a second that this lesson has been missed by either campaign.
Ford was a special case. He was the only man appointed to be vice-president who went on to become president. He inherited a lot of ill-will because of his association with Nixon and for pardoning Nixon. The circumstances are too different to offer any advice for Romney.
The 1992 Bush/Clinton race is more important to Obama as an example of what not to do. Bush wanted to run a gentlemanly race and did not take Clinton seriously until sometime in October. He just did not believe that a sitting president would be turned out for someone with Clinton's scandalous past. Bush cancelled coordinated attacks on Clinton's record because he thought that they were too harsh. When he finally did begin campaigning hard he closed most of the gap in the polls in a couple of weeks. Bush insiders are sure that he could have won if he had begun seriously campaigning a week or two earlier.
The Obama Campaign is aware of that and began planning their strategy against Romney last year. They began running anti-Romney ads before he even had the nomination sewn up. If Obama loses, it will not be because he did not take Romney seriously.
That leaves the 1980 Carter/Reagan match. There are a lot of similarities between Carter and Obama. Both were Washington outsiders who could not get along with Congress. Both struggled with the economy for most of their term and seemed unable to fix it.
One of the things that people remember from the 1980 campaign was Reagan's question in one of the debates, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
Romney's campaign has been following the Reagan model, attacking on the economy and offering an economic program based on flattening the tax rates and removing tax breaks. Will this be enough?
Carter's problems extended beyond the economy. The Cold War was still going strong and the Soviet Union had taken advantage of the Carter years to begin expanding, sending Cuban troops to overthrow African and South American governments. The Shaw of Iran, a US ally, had been deposed and the elected government Carter helped set up only lasted a few weeks before the country became an Islamic theocracy. A few months later Iran overran the US embassy and took the staff hostage. Not only was inflation rampant but oil prices were rising much faster than overall inflation.
Reagan not only attacked Carter on the economy, he also painted him as weak on defense. In contrast, Romney has barely said a word about Obama's foreign relations (except for his three-nation trip).
Reagan was also a more gifted orator than Romney. Reagan spent years as a motivational speaker and used this time to hone his message.
While Reagan's campaign offers some lessons for Romney it is an incomplete model. Obama has not made any spectacular foreign relations blunders (or if he has, they have not caught up with him, yet) so Romney can only attack Obama on the economy where Reagan could attack Carter on two fronts. This may be enough. The message of the Clinton 1992 campaign was "It's the economy, stupid!" meaning that voters cared more about economic issues than foreign wars.
Ironically, the Obama campaign seems to be following Carter's 1980 playbook by trying to vilify their opponent as an ultra-conservative boogie man.