Is the 2012 election the 2004 election all over again?

at 06:30 AM ET, 07/20/2012

A few months back, we wrote that the election most analogous to the 2012 contest was the 2004 race between President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry .

And, as the race has played itself out since then, we feel more and more confident in that comparison.


In this Jan. 16, 2010 file photo, former President George W. Bush listens as President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Consider:

* An incumbent president with a job approval score and ballot performance that is consistently under 50 percent.

* A challenger with a resume that seems to fit the times but who has struggled to capi­tal­ize on the weaknesses of the incumbent — and yet remains very much in the game due to the same weaknesses of the incumbent.

* A political environment dominated by a single issue (the Iraq war in 2004, the economy in 2012) on which the incumbent is struggling to convince voters he has the right plan going forward.

* A deeply polarized electorate with next-to-no undecided voters who remain entirely unconvinced by either candidate.

It’s an uncanny — although not entirely perfect — comparison. The political environment is probably worse for President Obama than it was for Bush — problems at home always trump problems abroad — while the current president is a more gifted and nimble candidate than the man he followed into office.

Even with those differences, however, the race at this point, all the way down to the polling data on the horse race, looks damn similar.

In a July 25, 2004, Washington Post-ABC News poll, Bush took 48 percent to Kerry’s 46 percent among registered voters. In a July 8, 2012, Post-ABC poll, Obama and Romney were tied at 47 percent.

So, if you buy the premise that the 2012 election — at least to this point — looks a lot like the 2004 election, then what lessons can the two campaigns learn from how that one turned out?

Let’s start by looking at how the polling in the race between Bush and Kerry played out from now-ish until the election.

For much of the summer of 2004, Bush hovered in the mid-40s and slightly behind Kerry. But beginning around Aug. 1 in Post-ABC polling, Bush started to move slowly but steadily up in the ballot test — a trend line that led him to a narrow victory on Election Day.

Here’s a chart of Post-ABC polling on the Bush-Kerry race from March through September 2004.

What happened to change the race? Republicans’ all-out assault on Kerry — on everything from his Vietnam credentials to his love of windsurfing — began to take hold in the electorate. In so doing, the Bush team was able to create a “devil you know vs. devil you don’t” choice for the small number of people who still hadn’t made up their minds about whom to vote for.

That is exactly what the Obama team is trying to do with a flurry of ads painting Mitt Romney’s time at Bain — supposedly the core strength of Romney’s campaign — as indicative of his inability to relate to average Americans (and that he’s a bad singer to boot). Romney, in turn, is doing everything he can to turn the focus back to Obama and the state of the economy.

It’s a critical time for both candidates. While most Americans tend to zone out of politics over the summer — and all the way through the two party conventions — the groundwork for the sprint to November is being laid now. (Remember that August is when Bush started making his move.)

If the 2012 election continues to follow the 2004 model, look for Obama to begin gaining steam over the next month-to-six weeks as the body blows his campaign have been landing against Romney begin to have their desired effect.

If, on the other hand, the economic news continues to be grim — or gets grimmer — then the 2004 analogy will likely no longer be operable. Bush won because peoples’ feelings about Iraq weren’t so negative as to swamp everything else at play in the election (that came two years later). A sour economic picture over the next few months could very well wipe out any attempt by the Obama team to turn this election into a choice between a damaged incumbent and what they hope will be a disqualified challenger.

Americans want more Romney tax returns: A majority of Americans say Romney should release more of his tax returns, according to a new Gallup poll.

The poll showed 54 percent saying Romney should pony up at least a few more years, while 37 percent said he should not release anything else.

As one might expect, the numbers break significantly along partisan lines, with 75 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of Republicans asking for more disclosure. Independents want more returns by a 53 percent-to-36 percent margin.

What the numbers don’t suggest is how important this is to people’s votes. Obama’s campaign is trying to suggest that Romney is hiding something, which would undermine the GOP nominee’s character along the lines discussed above.

The poll does show, though, that 15 percent of people think the returns contain damning evidence that would make Romney “unfit” to be president, while another 29 percent think they would harm the campaign to a lesser extent. The remaining 54 percent either don’t know what to expect (14 percent) or don’t think Romney would harm himself (42 percent).

Fixbits:

Vice presidential tea leaves? Tim Pawlenty’s website is being revamped, complete with a “coming soon” missive. Pawlenty says he’s not sure why.

One of the businessmen Romney’s campaign used to illustrate the self-made nature of American entrepreneurs has gotten government assistance.

Obama returns to a bread-and-butter issue: Medicare.

Wisconsin Senate candidate Eric Hovde (R), who has been critical of farm subsidies, says his real estate firm will stop taking a tobacco farm subsidy after the incongruence was brought to his attention by reporters.

Democrats search for a viable challenger to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).

The New York Daily News reports that a federal grand jury is looking into freshman Rep. Michael Grimm’s (R-N.Y.) fundraising.

A new poll conducted for former California lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado (R) shows him trailing Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) 48 percent to 46 percent. The poll is by GOP pollster Public Opinion Strategies, and the district became a swing district after redistricting.

A smattering of Democrats is fighting for the right to face Snohomish County Councilman John Koster (R) in the seat being vacated by former congressman Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), and a new poll shows them all clustered at 12 percent or less.

Must-reads:

G.O.P. Firebrand Faces Election Challenge in New Swing District” — Lizette Alvarez, New York Times

Congress’s debate on year-end ‘fiscal cliff’ sets stage for fall showdowns” — Paul Kane, Washington Post

 
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