Ghosts of Elections Past Won’t Help Predict This One

For generations, political operatives have revisited past presidential elections to try to predict the outcome of their present-day campaigns.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme, as Mark Twain supposedly quipped. This year, Republicans are pointing to 1992, when a Democratic challenger won, and Democrats favor 2004, when a Republican incumbent prevailed.

In 1992, the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, lost to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. That election, as I wrote at the time in Newsweek, boiled down to “Trust vs. Change.” The voters trusted Bush much more than Clinton, who had extramarital affairs and dodged the draft. But they were hungry for the change that Clinton represented.

This time, it’s trust versus change again. Polls show that voters like and trust President Barack Obama more than Mitt Romney. But they give the presumptive Republican nominee the edge when it comes to the economy -- the No. 1 issue by far. The Romney camp in Boston points out that Clinton was running third in June 1992 (behind Bush and billionaire Ross Perot) but came back because of unease about the economy, which was hurting with about 7.4 percent unemployment, though doing better than it is now. Despite the personal respect he commanded and his foreign- policy triumphs (the first Gulf War), Bush the incumbent won only 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race --a good sign, Republicans say, for Romney.

Real Change

One big difference this year compared with 1992 is that Romney hasn’t convinced voters yet that he represents real change rather than a default position (not Obama) or, worse, a return to the failed conservative economic policies of the past. And an awkward Romney has already proved he’s no Bill Clinton on the stump. He might not even be a Michael Dukakis in 1988 or a Bob Dole in 1996.

There’s no Perot this time, yet little-noticed third party candidates could still determine the election, as Ralph Nader did in 2000. Former Representative Virgil Goode, the nominee of the right-wing Constitution Party, is at 9 percent in Virginia, according to a survey by Public Policy Polling. Even if he drops to 2 percent or 3 percent, Goode, who represented southern Virginia in the House for six terms, could hand that state to Obama. And Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, may siphon voters from the president in Colorado, where marijuana legalization, which Johnson favors, is on the ballot.

At Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago, they like the 2004 analogy: Stiff Massachusetts rich guy with good hair and lukewarm support in his own party comes up short against a sitting president despised by the opposition but buoyed by a strong get-out-the-vote effort with his base. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, led President George W. Bush for months in the polls. In the end, he couldn’t recover when he got “Swift- boated” -- successfully attacked in a campaign of distortions about what was supposed to be one of his greatest strengths, his service in the Vietnam War.

Sound familiar? Kerry was outraged over those attack ads. Now Romney thinks the assaults on his years at Bain Capital Partners LLC -- which he touts as evidence of his job-creation abilities -- are out of bounds. But they, too, have been effective so far.

One big difference from 2004 that might favor Romney is that Bush wasn’t running for re-election in a sagging economy. And as the president was seen as standing up to terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks, he could hold a successful thematic convention dedicated to championing his character. Killing Osama bin Laden helps Obama neutralize the usual Republican assaults on national-security issues, but that won’t give him much of a boost coming out of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, next month.

Reagan Surge

Romney’s dream is to reproduce 1980. That year, President Jimmy Carter and former Governor Ronald Reagan were neck and neck until the end. Then the country broke sharply for Reagan amid double-digit inflation and high interest rates. But as Ed Rollins, an adviser to Reagan’s 1980 campaign, says, Romney doesn’t hold a candle to Reagan as a candidate. And voters deserted Carter partly because of the failure of a last-minute deal to rescue the American hostages in Tehran. Memo to Republicans: Obama won’t be your Carter.

The Obama team pines for 1984, when the economy turned up enough for Reagan to proclaim that it was “morning in America,” allowing him to crush Walter Mondale, even though the unemployment rate on Election Day was 7.2 percent. The recovery this year has been too anemic for that kind of ad campaign and landslide.

Democrats who read history can only dream of 1936. That year, Franklin Roosevelt ran for a second term as the U.S. was beset by double-digit unemployment, though it had been significantly reduced since he was elected in 1932. Like Obama, he moved left during the campaign, saying of the wealthy, “I welcome their hatred.” His challenger, Alf Landon, campaigned hard against a new program called Social Security. Even though the benefits wouldn’t kick in for four more years (not unlike Obama’s health-care law), voters trusted Roosevelt to have their backs. The election seemed close to the end, partly because Literary Digest sponsored a poll showing Landon with a big lead. But it was a poll of telephone users and car owners and didn’t reach millions of Americans who couldn’t afford either. FDR carried every state but Maine and Vermont.

No one foresees a blowout in 2012, but some Obama backers say that many polls understate his support by failing to reach young voters who use only mobile phones. Alternatively, the polls might overstate the president’s popularity because the undecided (a smaller number this year than usual) usually break for the challenger.

The point is, we don’t know. One of the fun things about politics is that there are no reruns, only echoes that reverberate in our historical imaginations.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Alter at alterjonathan@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.

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