The embattled incumbent who’s better at campaigning than governing faces a tough challenge from the Massachusetts flip-flopper who comes across as less-likable.
Is this Obama vs. Romney 2012? Or is it Bush vs. Kerry 2004?
The confusion is understandable. But there’s more than just an interesting coincidence between the way the Democrats and Republicans are framing the other guy’s candidate.
From a tactical political perspective, President Obama’s reelection campaign against Mitt Romney resembles President Bush’s effort against Sen. John Kerry more than the 2008 fight between Obama and John McCain.
Quite simply, incumbents often wage the same type of campaign — promoting and defending their record against rivals.
Democrats borrowed a major lesson from Bush: Go negative early and often to define your opponent. And, in doing so, serve up red-meat to your core supporters.
When Obama’s negative onslaught was unleashed on the Republican’s business record at Bain Capital, some top Democrats like Pennsylvania’s former Gov. Ed Rendell and Newark Mayor Corey Booker were aghast months ago.
You can’t blame them, considering Democrats once preached sentiments like this:
“There are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America…We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?”
But that was sooooo 2004.
Specifically, that was so soooo Barack Obama in 2004, when the little-known state Senator from Illinois made these inspiring comments at the Democratic National Convention. Four years after that, Obama waged his juggernaut of a hope-and-change campaign.
Now he heads up a seek-and-destroy effort. That means TV viewers in battleground states like Florida will face a lot more negative messaging from both sides than in 2008.
It’s not because Obama loves Bush or loathes Romney. It’s because negative campaigning works. And it’s because times have changed.
This isn’t a “change” election, where one party’s candidate wins states typically aligned with the other candidate’s party (as Obama did in 2008 or Ronald Reagan did in 1980).
This is a “base” election. Each side is focused much more on partisan themes to turn out its base, its core supporters.
Like Bush, who had a strong on-the-ground voter-outreach effort, Obama is targeting slices of the electorate like never before.
And, as in 2004, the race is virtually tied right now. In July 2004, a Mason-Dixon poll showed Bush up by 2 points over Kerry, essentially a tie. In July 2012, a Mason-Dixon poll conducted for The Miami Herald and its partners showed Obama up by 1 point.
Remember when Bush made gay marriage a big deal in 2004, ginning up the religious right? Obama made gay marriage a big deal this year, albeit to turn out his supporters on the left.
The gay-marriage issue is a sign that Democrats might be more liable to raise so-called “culture war” issues more openly than Republicans during the general election. Another example: abortion.
Obama’s campaign is up with a new campaign ad, running in Florida and other battleground states, that says Romney "backed a bill that outlaws all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest." That’s false.
And, yes, Romney’s campaign and Republicans have taken Obama out of context over his remarks that seemed to say to private business owners “you didn’t build that.” The “that” in context was infrastructure (specifically government-built roads and bridges) upon which commerce relies.
Now Romney’s folks are saying “the context is worse than the quote.” That’s a paradigm Obama folks espouse when it comes to Romney’s stances on immigration, gay marriage or abortion.
The abortion ad is just another attempt to remind voters that the now anti-abortion Romney flip-flopped and that the Republican is, in the words of the woman narrating the ad, “just so out of touch."
Remember that Bush was the guy who was supposed to be the in-touch candidate with whom voters preferred to have a beer. Obama’s that guy now.
Of course, there are major differences between the ’04 and ’12 elections. Romney’s tax and budget policies closely resemble Bush’s. And campaign-wise, Romney is also reaching out to nontraditional Republican voters — namely the Jewish electorate — in the hope of eroding Obama’s base.
To hold his own, Obama’s using a Bush-like strategy that attacks his opponent at his strong points, not just his weaknesses. Aided by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Bush attacked Kerry’s war record, which was perceived as the Democrat’s strength in 2004. Obama’s doing the same with Bain.
So Romney ran a profitable business and Obama, presiding over an economy the electorate hated, has no private-sector experience? Well, Kerry had a war record when Bush, presiding over an unpopular war, didn’t. Bush won.
Some Romney-ites, namely his wife, just don’t seem to understand the purpose of the Bain attacks.
"For me it’s an irony that they’re trying to attack him on — in an area where he actually shines the brightest,” Ann Romney told CNN’s Piers Morgan in an interview last week. “And I don’t think that’s an area where people would ever understand that."
Democrats don’t want people to “ever understand that.” Right now, they’re running a campaign that’s designed not to make voters love Obama more, just like Romney less. Republicans, relying heavily on third-party groups (just like Democrats did in ’04) are doing the same to Obama.
If that type of campaign didn’t have a good record, surely President Kerry would have said something about it.