President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney may be dead even in the polls, but some pundits insist the president will prevail on Election Day because 2012 is the new 2004.
The story line goes like this: President George W. Bush had roughly the same numbers at this point in 2004 that Mr. Obama has today. Mr. Bush went on to win a narrow victory by building a massive ground game that focused on the GOP’s base and by relentlessly attacking his opponent, Sen. John Kerry. Mr. Obama is executing the same strategy. What worked for Mr. Bush, the theory goes, will work for Mr. Obama.
The only problem is the theory is based on a false premise.
It is a myth that 2004 was all about maximizing Republican turnout. The Bush campaign also successfully sought to win as many independents as possible and to poach elements of the Democratic coalition. In the end, Mr. Bush received 44% of the Hispanic vote, carried the largest share (24%) of the Jewish vote for any Republican since 1988, nearly erased the gender gap with 48% of the women’s vote, and was supported by 11% of black voters, up from 8% in 2000.
If Mr. Obama makes this election mostly about energizing the Democratic base—as he clearly intends to—he will further alienate swing voters who elected him in 2008 and then turned on his policies with a vengeance in 2010.
A second big difference is that the 2004 election was a referendum on whether Mr. Bush was keeping America safe. Remember “security moms”—that post-9/11 voting bloc of mostly white, married women with children? In a late September 2004 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 62% of voters approved of Mr. Bush’s handling of terrorism while 36% disapproved. In the Election Day exit polls, 58% said they did not trust Mr. Kerry to handle terrorism. Mr. Bush won 84% of these security-minded voters, Mr. Kerry just 15%.
The 2012 election will be a referendum on Mr. Obama’s performance not against terrorism, but on the economy. Only 42% in the May 20 ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy while 55% disapprove.
Meanwhile, the economy is seen as a strong point for Mr. Romney. When asked “Which candidate do you trust to do a better job handling the economy?” Mr. Romney polls as high or higher than Mr. Obama.