As this long summer campaign continues it becomes more and more apparent that 2012 has a lot in common with 2004, at least from an electoral perspective. Like 2004, 2012 is a presidential election year featuring an incumbent wrapping up his first term with middling approval ratings. At a similar point in July 2004, an NBC/Wall St. Journal Poll found President George W. Bush with a 48% approval rating. Eight years later the most recent NBC/Wall St. Journal Poll gives President Obama a 49% approval rating.
In 2004, the nation was experiencing tepid economic growth rates in what was called a 'jobless recovery' from the recession of 2003. Today, economic growth is exceptionally slow following the depression of 2007-09. The unemployment rate when George W. Bush became president was 4.2% and rising. It rose 50% to peak at 6.3% in the summer of 2003 before declining to 5.6% by July 2004. Unemployment when Barack Obama became president stood at 8.3% and rose another 20% to peak at 10% in October 2009 before slowly declining to its current 8.2% level.
The 2004 Presidential Election featured a likable president, with less than stellar approval ratings, facing off against privileged Vietnam War vet and multi-millionaire, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. America was in the midst of two wars, one becoming very unpopular and a drag on the incumbent. Senator Kerry's strength was his military experience so the incumbent strategy was to cast doubt upon the senator's fitness to be Commander in Chief. The effort led to the Swift Boat attacks against Senator Kerry shortly before election day as well as attempts to cast doubt on President Bush's service in the Texas National Guard. The continued fear of terrorist attacks made Americans hesitant to change administrations in the midst of two wars.
Fast forward to 2012. Both of the wars from 2004 are winding down and the economy is recovering slowly from the steep cliff it went over in 2008. The Presidential Election features a blue blood challenger in former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney with mediocre likability ratings and an incumbent president who is likable but struggling with his approval ratings. Unlike in 2004, President Obama will not have the fear of terrorism to boost his campaign. The focus is, and will remain, on the economy. Thus, the president and his team will seek to cast doubt on Governor Romney's claims that he can fix the economy based on his business experience at Bain Capital. The Romney team will argue that the president's policies have failed to turn things around.
The latest polls show the race in a virtual dead heat, not an enviable position for an incumbent to be in. But it is a position remarkably similar to where President Bush found himself in 2004. In 2004, the incumbent prevailed by 2.5 percentage points in the popular vote. The race essentially came down to a single state, as it had four years earlier. In 2000, as everybody knows, it was 'Florida, Florida, Florida' in the words of the late Tim Russert. In 2004, it was Ohio, Ohio, Ohio. President Bush carried the state by 118,000 votes out of more than 5.5 million ballots cast. A swing of just 60,000 votes would have given Ohio's 20 electoral votes, and the presidency, to Senator Kerry. President Bush was helped by a late October video released by Osama bin Laden taking credit for the 9/11 attacks, stirring up a fresh reminder to stay the course in the war against terrorism. Will there be an 'October Surprise' for President Obama as he urges Americans to stay the course and have faith that his policies will eventually lead to the economic recovery Americans want and need? Only time will tell.