So I was watching one of the cable shows this week (can’t remember which) and one of the talking heads said that the Romney campaign was looking at the electoral situation as being somewhat like 1980. In the summer, Carter and Reagan were close in the polls, but Carter’s support was under 50% and, in the Fall, undecided voters broke for Reagan in huge numbers. What with the bad economy, 1980 would look like an encouraging example for Romney supporters.
But let’s look at the presidential job approval numbers. In June, July, and early August of 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s job approval rating fluctuated between 31% and 38%. Carter wouldn’t hit 40% job approval for the rest of the year. During the same time period for this election year, President Obama’s Real Clear Politics average job approval rating has fluctuated between 47% and 48%. Barring an event that sinks Obama’s ratings, Obama’s floor of support is much higher than Carter’s. It is also quite possible that the median voter is somewhat less hostile to Obama in 2012 than a similarly situated voter felt toward Carter in 1980.
2004 might seem like a better model. In June, July, and early August of 2004, incumbent President George W. Bush’s Real Clear Politics average job approval rating fluctuated between 46% and 49%. Bush ended up winning the popular vote by 2.46%. 2004 seems like a better analogy for our current situation than 1980, and the implications would tend to point toward a narrow Obama win all other things being equal. But there are some important differences:
1. The economy was on the upswing in the second half of 2004. The unemployment rate spent the middle part of the year bouncing from 5.4% to 5.6%. This point cuts in Romney’s favor.
2. Latinos will likely make up a slightly larger percentage of the voting population in 2012 than they did in 2004. Latinos were 8% of the population in 2004 and were 9% of the vote in 2008. That isn’t a big change, but in a tight election, a little bit can matter. Bush also did pretty well with Latinos in 2004. The exit poll showed him winning 44% of the Latino vote. Even if that somewhat overstates Bush’s Latino support, Romney is polling far behind Bush’ performance with Latinos. This relative Romney weakness among Latino voters does not mean that Romney should pick Rubio. A Rubio pick might well produce more problems than it solves (maybe more on that tomorrow.)
3. Romney actually shares one weak point with Kerry. Kerry smartly (as a matter of politics rather than policy), shifted his position on taxes. Kerry supported extending the Bush tax cuts on all but the highest earners. This did Kerry limited good because, as a longtime Senator, he had voted against a lot of middle-class tax cuts (including the ones that he now said he wanted to extend.) There were just a lot of Senate votes where Kerry was on record voting for tax increases and against tax cuts, so it was tough for Kerry to shake the tax increaser label. Romney’s problem isn’t that he has voted for a lot of tax increases. Romney’s problem is that he has proposed to both cut and transform middle-class entitlements like Medicare. If Romney can’t explain his Medicare proposal in a way that is comprehensible and reassuring, then Obama will shape perceptions of Romney’s Medicare proposal in ways that are comprehensible (though perhaps very misleading) and terrifying. That alone could be enough to lose Romney what might otherwise be a very close election.