Why 2012 election isn’t like 1980 or 2004

Republican and Democratic sympathizers generally compare this year’s election to two previous presidential elections — 1980 and 2004.

While there are some similarities, there are also drastic differences that make comparisons perilous.

1980

Republicans are fond of comparing 2012 to 1980 because in both cycles a Democratic president was up for reelection, and in 1980 things didn’t end so well for the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter. The hope is that things won’t end so well for President Obama.

At first glance, it seems a compelling case, but at nearly every point, a deeper look reveals some glaring differences.

First, like 1980, this year features a liberal incumbent president whose first term has been plagued by a dismal economy and foul national mood.

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According to the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, only 38 percent think the country is moving in the right direction, while 56 percent think it’s on the wrong track. That’s a pretty bleak national outlook, but it’s not nearly so bleak as in 1980, when, according to Gallup, only 20 percent thought the country was moving in the right direction.

So even though Obama, like Carter, faces a pessimistic electorate, there’s a significant difference in the degree of that pessimism — one that bodes better for the current president than it did for Carter.

Second, Republicans like to point to the fact that Obama, like Carter, is plagued with approval ratings below 50 percent — a level that’s considered the most important benchmark for an incumbent’s reelection chances.

But here again, there’s a significant difference in degree between Carter and Obama. According to Gallup, Carter’s approval rating stood at just 31 percent at this point in the race, while Obama’s sits at 49 percent. Of course, 49 percent isn’t great, but it’s far better than Carter’s anemic numbers.

The third difference between 2012 and 1980 is demographics. The voting electorate has changed dramatically, and in a way that favors Democrats.

In 1980, only 2 percent of all voters were Hispanic. That number jumped to 9 percent in 2008 and could hit 10 percent in 2012. That’s a large increase among a bloc that generally supports the Democratic candidate at rates of 60 percent or better.

In 1980, approximately 10 percent of all voters were African-American, while in 2008, that number grew to 13 percent.

To tie all the demographic changes together, in 1980, 88 percent of all voters were white; in 2008, that number fell to 74 percent. That means one thing — the electorate is far friendlier to a Democratic candidate in 2012 than in 1980.

Many Republicans suggest that all Mitt Romney needs to jump ahead of Obama is a strong debate performance, like Ronald Reagan’s in 1980, but the hard truth for Republicans is that a much more diverse and Democratic audience will be watching the debates in 2012.

The final difference between 1980 and 2012 is that Romney is not Reagan. Ironically, of all four arguments, this is the only one that can’t be backed by empirics, but suffice it to say that it could be the most important difference. Reagan’s cross-party appeal was so seductive that he created an entirely new demographic — “Reagan Democrats." Romney has never even been particularly popular with some segments of Republicans.

2004

Democrats often point to George W. Bush’s narrow reelection in 2004 as a roadmap for Obama’s.

In 2004, political polarization was intense, there were few undecided voters from the beginning, and Bush’s win was less national and more a patchwork of an electoral map.

Once again, while some comparisons hold true, there are some important differences, as well — ones that aren’t nearly so salubrious for Obama as they were for Bush.

By far, the most significant is that Obama is weakest in the one area voters are most concerned about, while Bush was strongest in the area voters most valued.

Right now, voters are overwhelmingly focused on the economy. In the most recent Fox News survey, 69 percent of voters said the economy and fiscal issues would be most important in deciding their vote. That far exceeded the 10 percent who said social issues would be most important.

In the same survey, voters split, 46 percent to 46 percent, when asked if they preferred Obama or Romney on the economy. Meanwhile, they actually preferred Romney by 13 points over the president on cutting government spending — a fiscal area of concern.

Thus, Obama is weakest on the 2012 election’s defining issue — quite unlike Bush.

In 2004, exit polls suggested that the most important issue to voters was “moral values," and Bush defeated John Kerry, 80 percent to 18, in that category. Terrorism was also close to the top, and voters preferred Bush by 72 points on that issue.

That means Bush was strongest on the issues that mattered most to Americans in 2004, but Obama only battles Romney to a draw on the most important 2012 issue and, often, even loses.

There’s no doubt that this year holds similarities to previous elections, but for partisan reasons, Republicans and Democrats tend to overstate resemblances to 1980 and 2004. But both the candidates and circumstances of this year’s race are different enough that readers should resist relying too much on their history books.