Throughout this election cycle, campaign 2012 has been compared most often to that of 2004.
The similarities are striking: Both years featured a controversial incumbent whose tenure was weighed down a by serious challenge (war, the economy). Both years also featured a richer-than-rich challenger from Massachusetts who struggled to connect with average voters and seemed to lack a clear ideological core, making him vulnerable to charges of political opportunism.
To some extent, the Obama and Romney campaigns even seem to be cribbing from the 2004 playbooks. The Obama campaign has been pursuing a microtargeting strategy, making narrow appeals to specific demographic groups, just as George W. Bush’s campaign did. The Romney campaign, like Sen. John Kerry’s, has been focusing its efforts more on the big issue of the day.
And just as today’s race seems headed for a photo finish, 2004 wound up being exceedingly close: President Bush managed to eke out a win in the crucial state of Ohio, which was just enough to send him back to the White House.
Of course, 2012 is not 2004 – the issues are different, and the electoral map has changed a bit, as have the demographics of many key states. And while the national polling looks remarkably similar (showing a very close race) there are also some key differences which, not surprisingly, partisans on both sides have been highlighting in ways that would seem to favor their guy.
Writing in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, former Bush strategist Karl Rove made a direct comparison between the two cycles, and concluded Mitt Romney is currently in a much better position than Senator Kerry was.
At this point in the race in 2004, he noted, the composite average of national polls showed Bush narrowly leading Kerry, 48.9 to 45.8. By contrast, today’s composite average shows Mr. Romney leading President Obama, 48.9 to 46.7. (The current Real Clear Politics average of polls shows less of a difference, with Mr. Obama and Romney currently tied at exactly 47.1, while in 2004, the RCP average had Bush at 48.8 and Kerry at 46.)
Earlier this week, however, the liberal blog Daily Kos made the opposite case. It compared the Oct. 20 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which showed Obama and Romney tied at 47 percent among likely voters, with the Oct. 20, 2004 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, which showed Bush and Kerry tied among likely voters at 48 percent – an almost identical result. But among registered voters, the 2012 poll showed Obama up by 5 points, while the 2004 poll showed Bush up by just 2 points, which led the site to argue Obama is actually in a slightly better position than Bush.
A more important difference than variations in the national polls, however, may be differences in individual states – since, in order to win the White House, a candidate must get to 270 electoral votes.
The RCP poll average for Ohio right now has Obama up by 2.1 – which happens to be exactly the same margin Bush held in the RCP average for the final week of the campaign in 2004 (and his actual margin of victory in the state).
But the trend line is different: looking back at all the Ohio polls of 2004, Kerry actually held a lead in roughly half of them, whereas this time around, very few have shown Romney ahead. Obama has been ahead in more than 80 percent of Ohio polls taken during the past year.
Since Romney is essentially trying to replicate Bush’s electoral map (with one or two states swapped out), it's worth looking at where he stands in those battleground states, vis a vis Bush at this point in the 2004 race. And there it appears Romney may face a steeper climb.
He’s already almost certain to lose at least one state Bush won (New Mexico), though he has a shot at winning two states Bush lost (New Hampshire, and to a lesser extent, Wisconsin). More to the point, a comparison of the 2012 and 2004 polls shows Romney is behind where Bush was at this point in the race in Ohio, Nevada, Iowa, Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina – all states Bush won, and most of which Romney needs in his column. The only battleground state Bush won where Romney is currently running slightly ahead of Bush is Florida.
That could change, of course. But right now, it means his odds of winning appear slimmer than Bush’s were eight years ago.