Are you better off?

Moments before taking the stage for his only debate with Ronald Reagan, President Jimmy Carter made a miscalculation that may have cost him reelection. Backstage, Carter won a coin toss to determine who would field the night’s first question. He deferred to Reagan, which also meant Reagan would get the last word.

It was Oct. 28, 1980, one week before Election Day, and despite a sluggish economy and a crisis in the Middle East, Carter held a slight lead in the polls. For the first 87 minutes of the debate, Reagan parried Carter’s attacks. Then, at 11 p.m., he looked into the camera for his closing statement and addressed voters’ frustrations in a few epic lines:

“Ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? [p5] Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? [p29] Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? [p59] Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?” [p89]

More than three decades later, the world is a lot more complicated. Mitt Romney has sought to make the “better off” case against Barack Obama with mixed results, in part because voters recognize that Obama didn’t create all the problems his administration has been charged with solving.

But there are answers to Reagan’s questions, and in this data-filled special issue we tell you definitively what they are. That’s not the same thing as telling you who to vote for. You get the last word on that.

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