A rigid, disconnected Massachusetts politician versus a younger, relatable incumbent beloved by his own party, but hated by the opposition. Sounds like 2004, right? That seems to be the growing general consensus. However, if you take out the word Massachusetts from that sentence, you can begin to see that this presidential election is more closely related to the 1996 presidential election than the 2004 campaign.
After Bill Clinton came into office in ’92 on a message of “it’s the economy, stupid,” one of the earliest policies he pursued was another campaign promise for healthcare reform. It cost him significant political capital and galvanized the opposition against him, eventually leading to the sweeping victories by the Republicans in the mid-term elections. This time, Obama actually passed healthcare reform, but doing so stirred up that same opposition albeit through town hall meetings rather than “Harry and Louise” ads. And, just as they had done with the Contract with America, the Republicans utilized the Tea Party Movement to capture another such overwhelming victory in 2010.
Following their Congressional victories, Republicans in both instances overreached. During the Clinton administration, it was with the government shut down. In the Obama era, it was the Debt Ceiling crisis.
Going into the respective Presidential primaries, both Bob Dole and Mitt Romney were considered favorites for the GOP nomination, since the party often times anoints the “next in line.” In ’96, that was Dole, who had unsuccessfully run a primary campaign in ’88 losing to George H.W. Bush, the last time there was an open seat on that side of the aisle. This year it is Romney, who ultimately lost to McCain back in ’08.
Both Dole and Romney fought off primary opponents who had early victories, forcing each of them to move further to the right to appease the base. For Dole it was Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan. For Romney it seemed like it was just about everybody, but actually ended up being Santorum and Gingrich. In the end, however, the establishment coalesced around their original frontrunners, but not until later in the primary season.
On the other hand, Howard Dean was the early frontrunner going into the 2004 election cycle, but when it came to the Iowa caucuses, it was Kerry whose campaign came out of nowhere to win, leading to the infamous “Dean Scream,” effectively quashing Dean’s chances, and thus eliminating the need for Kerry to veer closer to his party’s base.
When it came time to select running mates, both Dole and Romney chose high-profile Congressmen, with whom they were not necessarily ideologically aligned, but who were instead picked to appease a fervent wing of the party, with whom they had trouble due to the contested primaries. Ryan is well known for his budget, just as Kemp was well known for being the head of the Kemp Tax Reform Commission. Both Veeps at times overshadowed their respective Presidential nominees, who were older, more wooden, and less popular among the base. And, their silence and compromises for the top of the ticket were heavily criticized by that base.
Contrast that with Kerry, who chose John Edwards, someone he ran against in the primaries, and who was chosen more for geography then ideology. Hailing from North Carolina and supported by his primary victory in South Carolina, it was perceived at the time that the younger, more charismatic Edwards would appeal to voters in the South. However, on the major issues of the time, such as health care, education, taxation, social issues and initial support then repudiation of the Iraq War, they were very much aligned.
Throughout their respective re-election bids, which were both focused on domestic issues rather than foreign policy as in 2004, Clinton and Obama held consistent leads against their Republican challengers. Also of note, when Clinton won in 1996, it was the first time in history the victor won without winning the male vote.
This year, Obama is capitalizing on the gender gap as well, securing a large portion of his support from women, as opposed to men, amongst whom the polls are much closer. Romney has never led this election season, and while he did briefly pull close in the popular vote during the convention, he never jumped out ahead, and that lead quickly evaporated. Kerry on the other hand traded leads with Bush during the summer of 2004 until a bounce from the Republican convention allowed Bush to pull firmly ahead throughout September. Obama’s convention bounce merely solidified the lead he has held throughout.
Now, it is possible that Obama could enter this year’s debates looking like a dear in headlights, repeating how the Presidency is hard work or something along those lines, causing doubt in the minds of the electorate thereby tightening the polls. However, the more likely scenario is that Obama will not commit a similar unforced error, and we will hear a message much like the one Clinton stated in his first debate, “We are better off than we were four years ago. Let’s keep it going.”
And from Romney we can almost hear echoes of what Bob Dole told the crowd the day before his second debate, “He's not responsible for anything according to him. Nothing that ever happens that is wrong is he responsible for and neither is anybody else's administration. It's always those Republicans or the media or somebody else out there, never Bill Clinton,”or in this case Obama. A message that didn't work for Dole and that's not working for Romney.
Ultimately, Clinton went on to defeat Dole 379 to 159, while Kerry lost to Bush 286 to 251, with Ohio making all of the difference. Looking at a current snapshot of the electoral map, Obama holds strong and consistent leads in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, and most of the swing states. If the election were held today based on current polling he would probably win 332 to 206, a result more closely aligned to that in 1996 than 2004.
It is said that history repeats itself, and this year is no exception. But, the history that is being repeated might very well be different that the one that is commonly thought. The only thing separating Bush and Kerry was Ohio. The only thing separating Romney and Dole is Massachusetts.