Advancing a Free Society

Different Horses, Same Race?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Not that all presidential elections have a soul mate, but one can argue that some years do follow a familiar script.

Take, for example, the elections of 1980 and 1932. What the two contests have in common: two incumbents (Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter) seeking re-election amidst terrible economic conditions, only to end up soundly rejected in favor of a more charismatic challenger (Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan) offering an ideological departure.

Or, there’s the parallel between 2000 and 1876. Each time, in an open race to replace a scandal-plagued administration, the Republican candidate lost the popular vote but won the election by eking out more electoral votes – in both instances, Democrats crying foul a contest outcome in Florida.

And 2012? The logical partner would be 2004.

Here’s why:

Let’s begin with the players. Both election-years feature an incumbent in a position he didn’t envision prior to taking office (George W. Bush didn’t anticipate becoming a wartime president; Barack Obama assumed the recession would be receding by now). As for their respective opponents: both held or had held statewide office in Massachusetts and; both had to cope with a media obsessed with his individual/family wealth.

Second, consider the tactical parallel.

In 2004, John Kerry’s touted strength going into the general election was his decorated military service. Conservative foes chipped away at that. In 2012 and running in a poor jobs climate, Mitt Romney’s touted strength his business acumen. The Democratic re-elect campaign is chipping away at that, much to Romney’s chagrin.

Third, there’s common political terrain. In 2012, as in 2004, a handful of swing states will determine the outcome, with Ohio and Florida at the heart of the matter.

The 2004 parallel also shows up in polls numbers. The latest Gallup weekly job-approval rating has President Obama at 46%. The bad news for Obama: that’s weaker than where Bill Clinton (58%) or Reagan (52%) stood at the same point in their successful re-election years. Then again, the last two incumbents to be shown the door had July approval ratings of 33% (Carter) and 32% (George H.W. Bush).

The incumbent closest to Obama? That would be George W. Bush, with an approval rating of 48% going into August 2004 (here’s an interactive chart, if you want to mix n’ match presidencies).

Polls make for interesting reading these days. Last week’s New York Times/CBS survey had the race at 47%-46% in favor of Romney (it was 46%-all in April; Obama led by 3% in March).

But beyond the horse-race numbers, both candidates have glaring problems. For Obama, it’s the public’s eroding confidence in his presidency (55% disapprove of his handling of the economy, up from 48% in April). For Romney, it’s being on the short side of the empathy gap (63% said Obama “cares” versus 55% for Romney).

Another number to note: 52% of Obama supporters favor their man “strongly” while only 29% of Romney supporters felt the same about their guy. Then again, half of Republicans feel more enthusiastic about voting in this election compared to those past; only 27% of Democrats feel the same. And, with more voters undecided about Romney than Obama, one can argue the Republican challenger has an advantage in that he has a “higher ceiling” (i.e., more room to grow) than the Democratic challenger.

In all, it’s quite a mixed message from a persnickety electorate.

One final parallel between 2012 and 2004: polling consistency.

Good luck finding a head-to-head matchup these says that drift beyond the margin of error. Real Clear Politics’ average of nine polls taken through the course of July has Obama with a 1.7% lead – the President leading in five polls, trailing in two, and two others a tie. Not that Team Obama should be jumping for joy: on July 21, 2004, the RCP average showed Kerry with a 2% lead over Bush.

And so it remained in 2004 – and perhaps in 2012 as well: a tight race around the turn and into the home stretch.

On the final weekend of the 2004 race, Gallup’s last poll had Bush and Kerry at 49%-all. Before allocation of the undecided vote, Gallup's likely voter model had Bush ahead, 49%-47%, while the results among all registered voters had Kerry ahead, 48%-46%.

And after the votes were counted, the final tally read: Bush 50.73%, Kerry 48.27%.  Translation: the late undecided vote went with the incumbent; his party, the GOP, did a better job of motivating and mobilizing its base on Election Day.

Not surprisingly, the same x-factors that will determine the outcome of this year’s horse race.