When did Republicans become obsessed with Reagan?

President Ronald Reagan in 1982.
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President Ronald Reagan in 1982.

Republicans want you to know that they adore Ronald Reagan.

In the September debate, the presidential candidates stood in front of Reagan's presidential plane at his California library, telling heartwarming tales of how they'd voted for Reagan as a teenager (Chris Christie) and had always admired his lovely smile (George Pataki). Ben Carson credited Reagan with converting him to the Republican Party, and Jeb Bush invoked the ex-president while defending his wife from Donald Trump.

According to a Big Crunch analysis, the 40th president's name was mentioned by the candidates and moderators 64 times. Along with the 14 mentions in August, that's nearly as many mentions as in the entire 2000 primary season.

Reagan worship may be becoming more common, but it's nothing new. The Gipper has been brought up in every Republican primary debate since 1999 without exception, and there is no reason to think he won't play a role in CNBC's GOP debate Oct. 28 as well.

But why? The other side has no such obsession: In the 29 Democratic primary debates since 1999, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and outgoing President Bill Clinton were together mentioned only 97 times — in the 48 Republican debates in that time, Reagan was mentioned more than five times as often.

Reagan's actual presidency was not nearly as well-loved by most Americans. Reagan's eight-year approval average of 53 percent puts him behind not only FDR, JFK and Clinton, but also below the average for all presidents since Gallup polls began.

In 1986, nearly 1 in 3 Americans thought Reagan should consider resigning before his term was finished, and even politicians — including Mitt Romney — who would later play up their love for the movie-star-turned-politician distanced themselves back when it seemed that his presidency might be a failure in the history books.

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"He will never again be the same Ronald Reagan he was before he blew it," said conservative Rep. Newt Gingrich in 1987 after the Iran-Contra scandal, which revealed that the administration was exchanging arms for hostages in Iran and using the proceeds to fund Nicaraguan rebels, all prohibited by Congress. "He is not going to regain our trust and our faith easily."

But Gingrich, it seems, was wrong. He would later talk up his Reagan connections with the best of them. While surveys of presidential scholars and historians by Siena College from 1982 to 2010 consistently characterized Reagan as a middling president, nearly 20 percent of Americans now think Reagan was the nation's greatest president — beating out Abraham Lincoln, Clinton, JFK and George Washington. Reagan was mythologized while he was still alive.

It's not unusual for presidents to be more popular after they leave, but Reagan's jump is still impressive. Out of nine presidents compared by Gallup, Reagan's average approval jumped the most after leaving office — 11 percentage points — aside from Kennedy (13 after being killed in office) and Ford (13). Looking at only the most recent polls, Reagan has now gained 21 points — far more than any other president measured.

Why do Americans remember Reagan so much more kindly than history suggests they should? One reason may be that Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease after leaving office, so politicians and journalists who had once been critical of his legacy were less likely to point out his flaws.

"Reagan's unprecedented condition created an environment when sharp criticism of things that went wrong in the White House during the 1980s was now rendered, in the new terminology, politically incorrect," political reporter Will Bunch wrote in his book about the mythologized Reagan.

The new Reagans

Reagan's disappearance from public life nearly six years after he left office also made it easy for conservatives of all stripes to claim his mantle. As late-night host Stephen Colbert recently pointed out to candidate Ted Cruz, Reagan's record as president deviates significantly from both his own rhetoric and the policy positions attributed to him by modern candidates.

That's why today you hear about the Reagan who instituted a massive tax cut in 1981, not the Reagan who, when revenue from supply-side economic theories failed to materialize, reversed course to sign the largest peacetime tax increase in history in 1982, and then to raise taxes again in 1983 and 1984.

Candidates will talk about the Reagan who cut government regulation, but not the one who increased the size of the federal government and the national debt. We hear about the Reagan who demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall" and called Soviet Russia an "evil empire," but not the Reagan who later met diplomatically with Soviet leaders to form the foundation of nuclear disarmament.

Perhaps the main reason that Reagan is mentioned so frequently may simply be because, as Bill Whalen of the Hoover Institution wrote before September's debate, while Democrats had Clinton and Barack Obama to fill the void after Kennedy, Republicans have had no recent candidates who can match Reagan's charm.

But pretending to be an imaginary version of Reagan does the candidates no services — no one really believes that Romney or Donald Trump are Reagan reincarnated, and many voters are too young to be nostalgic about Reagan anyway. According to data shared with CNBC by consumer data company Resonate, 7 percent of people who said that they vote Republican weren't even alive when Reagan left office, and more than a third of Republican voters weren't of voting age.

Whalen's advice to the debating candidates: "Like Reagan and his political journey from Trumanite to Thatcherite, dare to show evolved thought. Be bold enough to take the GOP in directions beyond its present conservative straightjacket."