Political reporters — all of whom are history nerds at heart — spend countless hours trying to figure out which past election the current elections most reminds them of.
It’s part parlor game — you usually win when you compare the current election to the most obscure election of the past possible (this reminds me of the 1876 election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes) — and part useful political analysis. While no two elections are ever exactly the same, there are elections whose dynamics clearly resemble one another and where studying what happened can help you understand what will happen.
We’ve spent a lot — and we mean, a lot — of time thinking about what election the 2012 race reminds us most of and can now definitively say that it’s the 2004 contest between President George W. Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
Much of the similarity between 2004 and 2012 is centered on the challenger candidates.
In 2004, Kerry was the “head” candidate of the Democratic field; he wasn’t the candidate that made the base’s collective heart skip a beat — that was former Vermont governor Howard Dean — but he was the guy who the party believed stood the best chance to beat an incumbent they loathed.
Kerry looked the part and had a resume filled with military and legislative accomplishments that seemed to strike at the heart of what the election would be about: Who can keep you safe? (Remember that the 2004 election was the first presidential contest in the post-Sept. 11 era.)
Sound familiar? Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is quite clearly the “head” candidate in the GOP primary in 2012 (the “heart” candidate was some combination of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum). The base has never — and will never — love him.
But, Romney’s strength in the presidential primary process has always been that he is the most electable candidate against President Obama who — stop us if you’ve heard this before — the party believes stands the best chance to beat an incumbent they loathe on the single most important issue of the election: Who can make the economy better?
The result of choosing a “head” candidate is that the nominee has to endure a period of doubt — from the base and the media/political class — about whether he will be able to excite the party enough to make them turn out in large numbers.
“Elsewhere, throughout the conference, left-wing activists expressed their regrets that Kerry is not more ‘progressive.’ And to make matters worse, their misgivings about Kerry stood in vivid contrast to the wildly enthusiastic reception they gave to their true love, former Vermont governor Howard Dean.
When Dean showed up at the conference to accept its ‘Tom Paine Common Sense Award,’ the delegates reacted much as they did years ago at Bruce Springsteen concerts. People screamed. They stood up on their chairs. There was huge applause. It was sheer worship.”
As the 2004 race wore on, however, the Democratic base’s dislike for Bush trumped their lingering doubts about Kerry. And, yes, while Kerry did lose in 2004, it’s hard to say he lost because the Democratic base wasn’t excited enough.
(Why did Kerry lose in a sentence? Bush’s campaign demonized Kerry so effectively as a flip-flopping elitist that it revved up the Republican base slightly more than the Democratic base. Remember that Kerry lost the entire election by 118,000 votes in Ohio.)
It’s not hard to see current fears about Romney’s ability to excite the base disappearing in the coming months as the choice goes from one between a relative moderate and a handful of conservatives in a Republican primary to one between a Republican and one of the most polarizing Democratic presidents in history.
Before the naysayers jump on us (and they will jump on us), there are also obvious differences between 2004 and 2012.
First, the 2004 election was focused on national security issues. The 2012 election will be a referendum on the economy.
Second, Kerry clinched the nomination in January after sweeping the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries. Romney didn’t wrap the nomination up until Tuesday when Santorum dropped out.
Third, Romney is in worse shape both in terms of his favorability ratings and the head to head matchup against the incumbent than was Kerry at this time in 2004.
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted earlier this month, 50 percent of respondents said they viewed Romney in an unfavorable light while just 34 percent said they regarded him favorably.
Compare that to an early March 2004 Post-ABC survey that showed Kerry at 54 percent favorable against just 26 percent unfavorable. (Worth noting: Kerry had been the clear Democratic nominee for a month by that point.)
The results are similar on the general election ballot test. Polling released by the Post and ABC on Monday showed Obama with a seven-point edge over Romney among registered voters. At this point in the 2004 election, Kerry stood at 48 percent to 44 percent for Bush.
As we said above, no comparison is perfect. But, 2012 looks a lot more like 2004 than any other election we can think of. Republicans have to hope the outcome is different.
Do you agree with our pick? If not, what election do you think 2012 most resembles? The comments section awaits.