Writing in the Weekly Standard, the brilliant political analyst Jay Cost says we should compare Obama to Dukakis, not Carter, because like the latter he has the full support of the liberal Northern voters who now comprise the Democrat party (and not much else). If the election were held today, in his view we’d see a Republican presidential rout, not as great as Reagan’s, but a significant one nevertheless.
Dukakis, unlike Carter, was able to hold together his party coalition. He lost the 1988 election because Republicans were firmly united behind George Bush, and independents broke decisively toward the GOP.
This is roughly how the current political landscape appears, which leads me to conclude if the election were held today, and the GOP nominated a reasonably attractive candidate, Obama would do about as well in the popular vote as Dukakis did. Given the geographical polarization of the electorate (i.e. the red state-blue state divide), Obama would surely capture more than the 111 electoral votes Dukakis carried. Even so, it would be a sizeable Republican victory. Not quite as smashing as Reagan’s victory in 1980, but still substantial.
Moving forward, I think that is the best way to compare Obama. Not so much to Carter, who was hampered by internal divisions that did not plague Obama, but more to Dukakis, whose final vote share is roughly consistent with Obama’s job approval rating over the last 18 months.