Much has been made of how the 2012 election seems similar to 2004. In early to mid 2004 President Bush’s approval ratings hung below 50% and yet he somehow won reelection. Predominately left leaning pundits have pounced on the fact that President Obama is in a similar situation. In 2004 President Bush did not try to revive his image among voters but tried to destroy Senator John Kerry’s. Many believed it worked enough for him to win. similarly, the president’s campaign seems to be pursuing the same strategy in regards to Romney.
But 2012 is not 2004 no matter how much some would like to pretend it is. President Obama has invested heavily in attacking Romney’s record at Bain Capitol. But unlike the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry in 2004 these attacks are coming directly from the candidate himself. President Bush never directly attacked Kerry’s war record. President Bush also never had prominent Republicans come out and criticize his critiques of his opponent. Obama already has had members of his party critique his assaults on Romney ranging from Newark, New Jersey Corey Booker to former Congressman and now former party member Artur Davis.
This is not the only reason why 2012 is not 2004. In 2004 the economy was humming along. President Bush received high marks in polls on this front. It was instead foreign policy that dominated the campaign. This election the economy is front and center in voters minds. And unlike in 2004 when President Bush’s approval ratings on foreign policy were even or slightly negative President Obama’s numbers on his handling of the economy are abysmal. President Bush had the luxury of arguing under his tenure, even with 9/11, the economy was recovered and adding millions of jobs. President Obama cannot argue the same. He has to continue to argue that “we are slowly recovering” and convince voters that without his spending and domestic policies things would have been much worse.
Yet another reason is that in 2004 voters by a whopping 2/3rds margin said President Bush was a strong leader. Even if they disapproved of his handling of the issues they felt he was strong in his belief and convictions. His base certainly did. An April 2004 NBC election poll found 64% of all voters believed President Bush was a strong leader and 36% did not. For President Obama his numbers are far more tepid. The latest NBC poll found President Obama was viewed as a strong leader by 51% of voters, but 48% disagreed. Apparently the bully pulpit is not working so well for the president.
For some voters believing a president has strong convictions even if they are not all views that voter agrees with can result in a vote for the incumbent. With numbers like these the president cannot count on many of those voters votes.
Two other reasons stand out why 2012 is not 2004. The general assumption of how President Bush won in 2004 is that he played solely to his base. Now without a doubt more conservatives and Republicans showed up to the polls in 2004 then 2000. But President Bush made significant overtures to independents and Democrats. Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote (who lean Democratic), 10% of the African-American vote, 24% of the Jewish vote, 48% of the females vote and 47% of the independent vote (Kerry received 48%).
In this election cycle President Obama has virtually abandoned winning the independent vote and has been promising the various factions of his base promise after promise. His near open-warfare on anybody who disagrres with his policies have made bipartisanship impossible. His legislative achievements are consistently underwater among independent voters and his overall job approval among this group is not much better. Whereas President Bush tried to expand his coalition President Obama is doubling down on holding his 2008 coalition together along with low GOP turnout to eke out a narrow victory.
Lastly, as mentioned above, this election will be dominated by the economy. But the 2004 election was largely seen as a referendum on whether George W. Bush had kept the country safe since 9/11. This foreign policy dominated the campaign. As Karl Rove eloquently puts in his article on why 2012 is not 2004, “In a late September 2004 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 62% of voters approved of Mr. Bush’s handling of terrorism while 36% disapproved. In the Election Day exit polls, 58% said they did not trust Mr. Kerry to handle terrorism. Mr. Bush won 84% of these security-minded voters, Mr. Kerry just 15%.
President Obama will not have this luxury. He will have to run on a record many voters disapprove of and an economy that is sluggish at best and headed for a double-dip at worst. And worse for the president is the fact that many of the things that can affect the economy before November are beyond his control. A European Union break-up, a Greek debt default, a slowing or worse yet recession in China, all are factors the president cannot control.
These are but a few of the many reasons why 2012 is not 2004. Pundits would be wise to remember some of them.