There have been a number of analysts who have compared the 2012 and the 2004 presidential elections. In both cases, relatively weak incumbents with troubling economies faced milquetoast, older and rich white guys. Both campaigns featured strong, negative attacks on the challenger with a point of emphasis in turning a percieved strength (Kerry’s status as a military veteran | Romney’s substantial business experience) into an electoral weakness. Both elections were expected to be close. Both elections are expected to have hinged on the same swing states, and in particular: Ohio. But is this the same race? Let’s take a look at both races for the president, comparing the RCP averages for 2004 and 2012 in real time from August 17th to October 23:
As we can see, there are some simillarities between the two contests. Both contests were very tight in August, only to see the incumbent open up a significantly large lead in September. This was followed by an October surge by the challenger to once again make the race close. However, there are also some significant differences between the two races. Over the full course of this cut of the data, Bush out performs Obama by 0.39 percentage points, while Romney outperforms Kerry by 1.24 percentage points. Considering how close the 2004 election ended up being (Kerry lost Ohio and the presidency by just over 2 percentage points), this is good news for Romney going into the November election. But beyond the overall difference, there is even better news in the comparison between the two elections…as Romney’s differential over Kerry increases from month to month while Obama has increasingly trailed the Bush totals as we move from August to October:
Note how in August the election was looking very good for Team Obama: they were outperforming Bush during the same time period by 1.22 percentage points and Romney was doing worse than Kerry by 0.59 percentage points. That all changed in the beginning of September. For the month, Obama underperformed Bush by 0.67 percentage points, a near two point swing in the wrong direction for Obama with respect to Bush. While Romney overperformed Kerry in the month of September by 1.44 points, a full two point swing in the right direction for Romney. So even in a month where Obama dominated Romney and the media narrative was that Obama had the election well in hand, if we take 2004 as the baseline, Romney was doing substantially better as a challenger while Obama was doing substantially worse as an incumbent. The month of October continues that trend, but it only becomes larger. In October, Obama is underperforming Bush now by a full percentage point, while Romney is besting Kerry by a full two percentage points. Note, if we were to apply that as a weight to the 2004 election results, then Kerry would have bested Bush in Ohio by a percentage point and gone on to win the presidency.
So while it is true that, in broad strokes, there are striking simillarities between the 2004 and 2012 presidential elections, the incumbent in 2012 is performing significantly below the standard set by the incumbent in 2004, while the challenger in 2012 is substantially besting the performance of the challenger in 2004.