It may be hard to believe today, but in the summer of 2004 Sen. John Kerry’s campaign for president looked formidable.
President George W. Bush’s approval rating had been falling more or less continuously since its post-Sept. 11 highs, and was below 50 percent the week of July 26, 2004, when the Democratic convention was held in Boston. Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg told a group of liberal activists that week that the American public had made up its mind about Bush, negatively, and that all Kerry had to do was to establish himself as an acceptable alternative. Many Democrats felt similarly.
Greenberg’s theory was that the 2004 election was going to be a referendum on Bush’s performance. Likewise, a lot of Republicans today say they believe that the 2012 election will be a referendum on President Barack Obama’s record.
But Greenberg was wrong in 2004, and the Republicans are probably wrong about 2012.
The theory isn’t crazy, mind you. Traditionally, when an incumbent president runs for re-election, the race is a referendum on his record. The classic example is the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan match of 1980. Reagan asked Americans whether they were better off than they had been four years earlier. His challenge was to persuade middle-of-the-road voters that he was not the scary, warmongering, Social Security-slashing, ignorant nut that liberals claimed. Once he passed that test, he had won the election. The public didn’t so much choose Reagan as it rejected Carter. Four years later, it approved of Reagan’s record, and he won his own referendum.
The strategic insight of the Bush re-election campaign in 2004 was that times had changed. The nation was divided 50-50 between the parties. The number of committed partisans had increased, and the number of true swing voters — as opposed to voters who say they are independent but reliably vote for one party — had shrunk. In this newly polarized country, no president could hope to achieve high approval ratings for very long.
It followed, though, that a president could win re-election even with approval ratings that would once have spelled doom. In a 50-50 America, every presidential election was a choice between the incumbent and the challenger and not just a referendum on the incumbent. If voters who didn’t approve of the incumbent could be persuaded to prefer him to the challenger, the incumbent would win.
That was Bush’s game plan. Republicans portrayed Kerry as an effete liberal who would raise taxes and wouldn’t assert the national interest. They didn’t try to persuade Americans that Bush had been a terrific president or even that Kerry was unpresidential. They just made the case that Bush was better than the alternative.
When they had to contemplate a choice between Bush and Kerry, some voters found themselves starting to approve of the president by comparison: At the end of February 2004, when Kerry locked up the nomination, Bush’s approval rating was at 44 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. By Election Day, it had climbed five points.
Bush did not win in a landslide. In fact, no president has ever won re-election with a lower percentage of the major-party vote. But win he did. (Then, with Kerry out of the picture, Bush’s numbers resumed falling.)
Oddly enough, it was the next presidential race, with no incumbent running, that looked more like a classic referendum. Obama and the Democrats ran against Sen. John McCain on a platform of “no third term” for Bush. McCain, of course, tried to make the campaign a choice, and during the late summer had some success in defining Obama as an untested liberal.
The collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-September 2008 reframed the election as a referendum, just as Obama wanted it. It led voters to pay more attention to economic conditions and less to the perceived merits of the candidates. It put Bush, the incumbent, in the center of the action. And it briefly moved people who usually vote Republican to rethink their allegiance.
This time, Republicans are the ones who want a referendum. The message they have in mind is simple, and the question they want voters to consider is the same as in 1980: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is unemployment higher or lower? The national debt? Do you think Obama is up to the job?
Mitt Romney kicked off his campaign by delivering a succinct verdict: “Barack Obama has failed America.” After last weekend, Republicans will also say: Has America’s credit improved or deteriorated?
If the election is fought on those lines, then Obama will almost certainly lose. His strategy will therefore be to make it a choice election. He is going to want the small number of swing voters to think: No, I’m not satisfied with how things are going and I have my doubts about Obama, but I’m more worried about the radicalism of the Republicans on Medicare and their fealty to big business.
As far as anyone can tell today, perceptions of the economy on Election Day are going to be closer to what they were in 2008 than what they were in 2004. That’s what the Republican referendum theory has going for it. But the president’s approval rating tells a different story. Since Obama’s honeymoon ended, it has moved in a fairly narrow range, never going below 44 percent and rarely going above 51 percent in the RCP average. It doesn’t put him in cinch-to-win or sure-loser territory.
That suggests that the election is going to be a choice, and that merely being an acceptable alternative to a failed incumbent won’t be enough for the Republicans to win the White House.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.