Susan Page and I spent some time on our weekly Election Matters show going through the past five presidential elections in which an incumbent was trying to get re-elected, and comparing them to where this 2012 race stands today.
If you haven’t watched it, you should.
Basically, Barack Obama is in a better position now by objective indicators than were the two most recent losing candidates – Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. He is in a worse position than two of the three most recent presidents to win re-election – Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Obama is in a quite similar position to George W. Bush's position in 2004. Bush ended up winning that election over Democrat John Kerry, by three percentage points in the popular vote. Bush’s job approval rating was in the upper 40s at about this time in 2004, as is Obama’s today. And, in terms of the trial-heat ballots, Bush and Kerry were close, as are Obama and Romney today. In a May 21-23, 2004, poll, for example, it was Kerry 48%, Bush 46% among registered voters. In our most recent weekly seven-day rolling average this year, from May 22-29, it’s Obama 46%, Romney 46% -- again, among RVs. You can’t get too much more similar than that.
No election is like any other election, of course. A big issue in 2004 was the war in Iraq, which was a little more than a year old at that time. Plus there was the continuing war on terrorism, some three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. The economy was not as much of an issue then as it is now.
Let me be more specific. In our May 2004 update on Americans’ views of the most important problem facing the nation, 42% of mentions focused on some aspect of the economy, compared with 66% economic mentions now (May 2012).
On the other hand, the biggest non-economic problem in May 2004 was the war in Iraq, mentioned by 26% of respondents. How things have changed. Today, 1% of all mentions refer to Iraq and 1% to the still-ongoing war in Afghanistan, with a few other scattered mentions of wars and national security.
Back in May 2004, 12% of all mentions were related to the war on terrorism, compared with 1% today. All other issues in 2004 were in the single digits. Today, other than economic concerns, the only issue that gets double-digit mentions is disapproval of the way government works, with 14% of all mentions.
So Obama is facing a different environment than did Bush. Voters today are more focused domestically on the economy, and less worried about wars or terrorism. The concern about the economy most likely does not work to Obama’s benefit. It is likely that concern about terrorism worked to Bush’s benefit in 2004. The impact of the war in Iraq in 2004 is somewhat more difficult to determine.
So, given the closeness of the race, what potential events could tip this race one way or the other in the approximately five months until the election?
One of the most important factors will be the direction of the economy, something that most people who study elections conclude is a major factor in predicting the ultimate winner. Our measure of economic confidence is as positive as it has been over the last four years, but is still in negative territory. We will know more after Friday, when the government announces the May unemployment figures.
Second, unforeseen or dramatic world events could tip the race one way or the other. There are a number of hot spots around the world, any of which could boil over into high-focus news focal points. A president usually benefits in the short run if there are international challenges (we call these "rally effects").
Third, there is always the potential for candidate gaffes or incidents that stick in voters’ minds. Mind you, most gaffes and incidents don’t stick in voters’ minds, even though the media, with their short attention spans, insatiable appetite for anything new to report on, and need to focus on driving up ratings and clicks, will give any incident its time in the limelight. But one never knows what incidents or statements will take on lives of their own and either help or hurt a candidate in the long term.
Fourth, it’s possible that this summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act will make a difference in the presidential race -- regardless of what it is.
Fifth, there is the impact of basic, old-fashioned campaigning and advertising. Both campaigns will be spending millions of dollars in the months ahead. (Neither Obama nor Romney will dare attempt to take long vacations, in the fear that the other candidate will use that opportunity to gain the upper hand.) All of this activity may actually make a difference.
Sixth, Romney will get massive short-term publicity when he announces his vice presidential pick. It’s not clear that the VP pick ever makes a big difference, but it’s an event that will focus attention on Romney and on his campaign and away from Obama. So it could have some type of impact.
And then, along come the conventions, beginning in late August, followed by the October debates. By that point, it’s possible the general course of the election will be set. At this point, however, it's difficult to assign strong odds that either candidate will win. The race looks quite even, and quite similar to where the 2004 race was at this point.
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