CHARLOTTE—John Kerry just gave a strong speech at the Democratic National Convention, inspiring a lot of commentators to wonder where this Kerry was when he challenged George W. Bush in 2004. As it stands, he’s become a punch line for poor presidential efforts. But, to defend the Senator from Massachusetts, Kerry actually out-performed the fundamentals in 2004. According to political scientist James Campbell, Bush was favored to win that year, based off of economic indicators and his overall approval rating:
In the 2004 presidential election, the fundamentals tilted to the re-election of President Bush. They were not overwhelming by any means, but there were no factors that clearly favoured Senator Kerry. Both presidential approval and the presidential preference polls tilted in Bush’s direction, not by wide margins but by what appear to be clear enough margins to make it his election to win or lose. […]
Finally, the election-year economy, whether the first half or the second quarter are examined, was in the middle ground. This probably did not help Bush’s re-election much, but did not provide ammunition for Senator Kerry either. In conclusion, the forecast models based largely on these fundamentals anticipated a Bush vote in the 52–54% range.
The exit polls bear this out; Kerry won 5 percent of voters who strongly approved of Bush, and 15 percent of voters who only somewhat approved of Bush. These are good numbers for a challenger! From the beginning, Kerry’s win was unlikely—that he came close to unseating Bush is a testament to his genuine skill as a politician.