For the next 10 months, political pundits will twist themselves into knots trying to find an historical analogy for the 2012 election. Let me save them (and you) some time and go through the usual suspects:
2012 will be just like …. 2004
Why? A politically polarizing President faces a challenger not beloved by his party but selected because of an amorphous determination of "electability." In 2004, President Bush ran defending his decision to go into Iraq. In 2012, President Obama will run defending his decisions on the economy and health care. In both elections, the country held firm, but divergent views, on the success/failure of those policies. In both cases, the party out of power nominated (I'm assuming Romney will be the nominee) a person they thought would powerfully rebut the President's weakness (Kerry, a decorated war hero; Romney, a successful businessman), but had (and will have) that purported strength turned against them (Kerry - "swift boated"; Romney - "vulture" capitalist).
Why Not? Bush did not even win the popular vote in 2000 and thus, was campaigning on a limited field that was likely to result in another close election. Obama won 53% of the vote in 2008 and cleared 365 electoral votes. Even if he does not win some states (i.e., Indiana, North Carolina), he's likely to remain competitive in most of the states he won (or almost won, like Arizona and Missouri). The visceral experience of a nation at war was unique in modern American politics and was used to political advantage by Bush and the Republicans. Even had Bush made an important course correction on the war, it would not have changed overnight. Conversely, in 2012, the economy could dramatically improve or tank between now and November, essentially mooting Romney's entire reason for running for President and likely leading to another big Democratic victory (see, 1996) or drowning out any argument in the President's favor (see, 1980).
2012 will be just like …. 1992
Why? A weak economy sinks the Presidency of a man the country has a positive view of personally, but whose policies they do not agree with.
Why Not? Mitt Romney is not Bill Clinton. The only pain Mr. Romney feels is when the landscaping company he hired to tend his massive yard had the temerity to hire illegal aliens, something Mr. Romney told them not to be because, after all, he was running for President. 1992 also marked the end of three consecutive terms in the White House for the Republicans and their policies were ripe for attack by Clinton as having only benefitted the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. Lastly, absent the entrance of Mike Bloomberg into the race, no credible, "moderate" third-party candidate is likely to siphon off almost 20% of the vote (though most exit polling suggested Perot voters viewed Clinton as a second choice, indicating, if anything, that Clinton's win would have been larger had Perot not been in the race).
2012 will be just like …. 1980
Why? The American economy is weak and millions are out of work. A President elected to flush the system is instead overwhelmed by it, appearing weak and in over his head. Carter campaigned on honesty and decency in government but was hobbled by chilly relations with Congress, minor scandals, and a stubborn economy that idled while inflation and interest rates went through the roof. In 2012, a tepid recovery is doing little to stop the steady flow of reporting (and campaigning) about the economic suffering in our country. The President is portrayed as an amiable novice who is simply not up to the task of getting our economy on the right track.
Why Not? Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan. Even if Romney wins, the chances a conservative tide of Congressional candidates rides in on his coattails is quite small unless the economy craters this year, in which case, there's actually an ok chance that will happen. Also, unlike 1980 (black swan events notwithstanding), there is no Iran hostage crisis, no 20% interest rates and inflation is largely in check.
2012 will be just like …. 1948
Why? A politically wounded but charismatic President will base his re-election on campaigning against a "do nothing" Congress that has blocked his initiatives at every turn. In the meantime, the opposition nominates a patrician who is bland and acceptable, but does not inspire great enthusiasm among the base.
Why Not? First, there's unlikely to be a third-party candidate (or a fourth-party candidate, both of which happened in 1948) to draw votes away from one or the other candidates. Second, the lack of widespread polling in 1948 failed to detect Truman's late surge. That will not be the case in 2012. The primacy of the economy as an issue in 2012 is also in contrast to 1948, where the questions were related to the Cold War and China more so than the economy. Otherwise, it is actually quite likely that at least part of the President's strategy will be modeled on Truman's re-election campaign.
2012 will be just like …. 1936
Why? A President elected in the teeth of an economic catastrophe argues for four more years to see his policies through to their conclusion and warns against turning the government back over to the people who created the problem in the first place.
Why Not? As a basic matter of results, it is almost impossible to create a scenario that would result in Obama's winning 60% of the popular vote and more than 500 electoral votes. Also, the depth of the Great Depression was far more severe than the so-called Great Recession and the electorate, at least at the state level, swung strongly toward the Republicans in 2010. Unlike the mid-1930s, when the foundation of what we now regard as the social safety net was being created, now, there is a growing minority of politicians and Americans who think that safety net is too generous and should be trimmed back.
2012 will be just like …. 1916
Why? Major party candidates, both of whom are generally pragmatic and moderate, will battle it out in a politically polarized environment where each will attempt to turn subtle differences into major distinctions.
Why Not? Entering (or not entering) World War I is not the same as whether more tax cuts or infrastructure investment will grow our economy. The politics of today are such that even moderate pragmatists will drop millions of dollars into convincing the other guy is the incarnation of Satan.
2012 will be just like …. 1864
Why? Actually, this is just a shameless plug for a prior post where I suggested that a couple of major game changers (in 1864, it was Sherman's march to the sea and Grant's steady, anaconda-like choking of Lee) could turn what initially looked like a hopeless cause for the incumbent into a cake walk. Check it out:
Gun to my head, I'd predict that 2012 has the best chance of looking like either 2004 or 1996 because I think that the economy will show slow, but not dramatic improvement, allowing the President to argue (1) that his policies helped stave off economic ruin; (2) that the economy is improving (in 2011 alone, nearly 2 million new private sector jobs. Add another 2 million or so new jobs in 2012 and you've got a decent argument); and (3) that he inherited a mess brought on by the policies that Governor Romney is espousing (not to mention being advised by many Bush Administration officials who helped create the mess). If the economy picks up steam, there's little policy ground for Republicans to occupy, as was the case in 1996, when President Clinton waltzed to re-election.
On the other hand, if the economy does not pick up steam, stalls or goes back into recession, the obvious analogy will be 1980, not based on the personalities (at least not of Romney as a latter-day Reagan) but on the politics and the policy - that an inexperienced incumbent was unable to improve the economy. Writing in early 2012, and channeling Nate Silver, I would put the chances of Obama squeezing out a modest-healthy electoral victory of between 270-325 electoral votes at 50%, of Romney winning a similar victory at 25%, a major Obama electoral victory of more than 325 electoral votes at about 15% and a Romney win of that size at 10%. Ultimately, a slow but steadily improving economy combined with Obama's massive money advantage will, in my view, carry the day.