2004 All Over Again

Two historical analogues have been bounced around with regards to this election. Conservatives say we’re looking at another 1980, where a weak incumbent is felled by a resurgent Republican Party in a decisive victory. Liberals, with much less optimism, say that this is another 2004, where an embattled incumbent ekes out a small victory against a hapless and unpopular challenger. At the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib presents the case for both, but chooses not to take a side; at most, he invites his readers to speculate:

There are important differences between today’s situation and these precedents. This time, there is no third-party candidate as there was in 1980, when John Anderson’s presence muddled the picture. And in 2004, Mr. Bush’s problem was a war in Iraq that was seen as his own choice, whereas Mr. Obama is more seen as somebody who inherited his problem, an economic crisis.

Still, the precedents are intriguing: Will it be an incumbent who hangs on through adversity, or one whose support sinks as the decision draws near?

At the risk of sounding a little too certain, I think it’s clear that we’re looking at a repeat of the 2004 election. From President Obama’s approval rating—a steady 47 percent—to the stable but sluggish economic growth, the fundamentals of this year look similar to the ones that prevailed in 2004. Unemployment is much higher than it was eight years ago, but the overall level of joblessness is less important than the relative decline since 2009. Both sides are highly motivated, and both have focused their energies on negative attacks against the other.

The differences with 1980 are huge. That year began with a recession, and economic growth plunged between the first and second quarters. With negative growth came high unemployment, as well as rapid inflation. When you combine that with a challenge from within the Democratic Party, launched by Ted Kennedy, there was no way that Carter could win reelection; the public was angry over the economy, and saw—correctly—that he didn’t have the support of his party.

If there’s anything that distinguishes this election from the one in 2004, it’s that there’s something of a reversal in the candidates' roles. Traditionally, incumbent presidents run for reelection from the White House; Bush waited until late in the summer to begin serious campaign events. They limit their time on the trail, and try to project an image of measured confidence. They focus on the accomplishments of their tenure, and promise to “stay the course.” Challengers, on the other hand, spend their time on the trail and on the attack, offering new programs, and doing their best to appeal to different constituencies.

This year, the opposite is true. Obama is running like a challenger—he’s constantly on the move, campaigning around the country. Moreover, he’s using his influence as president to push new policies aimed at boosting support among important constituencies: the contraception mandate for women, the DREAM Act-lite for Latinos. Bush, by contrast, focused his message on terrorism, with less emphasis on particular programs (which is why he lacked serious support for his push to reform Social Security in 2005; he didn't campaign on it).

Romney, on the other hand, is running like an incumbent; he keeps away from the press, and avoids as many questions as possible. This makes sense if you assume the election is purely a referendum on the president. But if it isn’t—and it's too early to say for sure—then it’s not enough for Romney to stand as a cipher for anti-Obama sentiment. Voters need an actual reason to support him.

The danger of Romney’s strategy is that it gives Obama a chance to reintroduce himself to the public, and to remind Americans why they voted for him in the first place; it makes this a contest of personalities as well as ideas. Romney might not win that fight, but if he refuses to engage, he’ll certainly lose it.