So I read Jay Cost’s article comparing LBJ’s strategy in 1964 to Obama’s strategy today. I’m not sure that the analogy holds up on the level of tactics. Sure LBJ tried to paint Goldwater as an unacceptable extremist. He succeeded. Jimmy Carter tried to do the same thing with Reagan, but he failed. I also looked at the numbers. LBJ’s job approval rating throughout 1964 was in the 70s. It is tough to see how anybody beats any president with those kind of job approval numbers.
So we’ve already seen how the presidential job approval numbers for 2004 resemble those of 2012. In June, July and August of 2004 Bush’s Real Clear Politics average job approval fluctuated between 46%-49% . During the same months in 2012, Obama’s RCP average job approval has fluctuated between 47%-48%. The similarities are striking. The incumbent went on to narrowly win the 2004 presidential election.
The presidential job approval polling for 1976 also resembles that of this year. The last two Gallup surveys that asked respondents the question on presidential job approval produced job approval ratings of 45% and 47%. The incumbent narrowly lost. One of the Gallup guys says that this election most closely resembles 1976 and 2004.
So here are some differences between 2012 and 1976:
1. The challenger in 1976 started with a huge lead. Obama now has a narrow lead over Romney in most polls (but I still see it as just about tied.)
2. I have a sense that some white Southerners and evangelical Christians (partly overlapping categories) who might have mildly approved of Ford ended up voting for Carter based on shared identity. This might have been the last vote many of these voters cast for a Democratic presidential candidate.
3. Obama is a much more ideologically polarizing figure than Ford was in 1976.
I don’t see it as Romney race to win or Obama’s race to win. It looks like a toss up (perhaps with a slight Obama advantage.) Events could put the election out of the reach of a particular candidate. If we have very strong job creation numbers reported in September and October, then Romney will have a very tough time winning. If Greek default ignites a global financial crisis then things will be tough for Obama (probably the rest of us too.) Absent the decisive intervention of events, the race looks like it will be decided by the quality of the candidates and the campaigns, as well as the media environment. It is anybody’s ball game.