Aug. 10 (Bloomberg) — 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.
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.