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Is Romney Rerunning Kerry 2004? Yes and No.

There are few ideas that would scare any Republican more than saying that Mitt Romney is turning into John Kerry…but there is at least some evidence that may be showing just that.  This is not a new idea, as even some of his Republican opponents in the primary suggested the comparison.  But is the comparison valid?

I think in many ways Romney is a superior candidate to Kerry of 2004, and that Obama is a weaker incumbent than Bush was at the same time 8 years ago.  And there are systemic advantages that I discuss below that make this a significantly different race.  But that doesn’t mean that Romney is not making some of the same false assumptions and mistakes that the Kerry campaign did.

What is interesting is to take a moment of time snap shot of the portrayal of the race from the New York Times from September 12, 2004:

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Everything seemed to be in place for a powerful run bySenator John Kerry in Ohio in the stretch drive after Labor Day. Al Gore lost the state by 175,000 votes in 2000, despite having pulled all his advertising early in October. Ohio has shed 250,000 jobs since George W. Bush became president. Rocked by scandals and an unpopular tax increase, the statehouse Republicans, from Gov. Bob Taft down the line, have been in unaccustomed disarray for weeks.

Ahead by six percentage points in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in mid-July, Mr. Kerry trailed by nine points in a similar survey taken Sept. 3 through Sept. 7, immediately after the Republican convention. Kerry aides said the second poll had been taken too soon after the convention to be meaningful, but its results mirrored the impression of many savvy Ohio political figures.

Sound familiar?  It does to me.

Many made similar assumptions about Romney’s chances this time around: the economy was weak; Obama had lost jobs in the state; and key economic sectors had been damaged by this administration (namely, coal).  And Obama leads the state of Ohio by an average of 4.4 points as of today. Kerry trailed by 9 points at the same point in 2004.

Move forward 7 weeks.  Then note the New York Times from November 1, 2004…24 hours before the election.  At that point, John Kerry trailed George W. Bush by 1.5 points nationally:

The poll shows that Mr. Bush and his opponent, Senator John Kerry, remain locked in a statistical tie as they head into the final 48 hours of the race. But the poll registered an increase in Mr. Bush’s job approval rating, as well as an increase in the number of Americans who said the nation was heading in the right direction. Republicans described this as evidence that Mr. Bush was picking up speed in these closing days of the campaign, but Democrats dismissed the numbers, saying that both figures remain dangerously low for an incumbent.

Fittingly enough, this final pre-election Times/CBS News poll shows that the race is not much different at the end than it was in March, when Mr. Kerry emerged as his party’s presumptive nominee. The president has 49 percent, compared with 46 percent for Mr. Kerry.

This is virtually the same race we seem to be running today.

Obama is rerunning Karl Rove’s playbook from 2004.  This should fool no one, since the Obama campaign, especially David Axelrod, has hinted as much.  The plan was to drive the opponents negatives up in the summer, consolidate the base, and ride the convention to the election victory.  And so far, it is working.

The similarities to 2004 are important, but there are some key differences as well.

First, in 2004 the key issue was foreign policy, as the wars weighed heavily on every issue.  Bush had some strength in that area however, especially after capturing Saddam Hussein and in his response to 9/11, and Kerry was never able to overcome that.  The second most important issue in 2012 was moral issues, and Bush crushed Kerry on that topic, 80%-12%.  Simply put, on the issues that mattered, Kerry never won a majority of America.

In 2012, the issue is still the economy.  The media portrayal of a ‘recovering’ economy is a facade that cannot be hidden by the unemployment numbers and other data, which shows an economy that at best is stagnating, and at worst is faltering.

Second difference that is apparent is about party excitement.  In 2004, Democrats had the energy  behind them, as they ran a campaign to oust Bush.  However, Bush was able to counter this successfully; on election day, Republicans achieved parity with Democrats in voter turnout, something that had never happened.  This year, the excitement is also with the challenger.  The question is, can Obama use demographic advantages like Bush did to narrow that margin?  We do not know that yet.

So, all is lost!  Right?  Not so fast, my friends.  The real question for conservatives, and especially the Romney campaign, is simple:  how do they change the dynamic?  What can Mitt Romney do that John Kerry did not or could not?

First and foremost, Romney must win on the core issue of this election: the economy.  In 2004, the core issue of the election was not the economy, but the wars and Bush’s foreign policy.  On those issues, Bush and his allies largely neutralized Kerry’s early advantage, and made the public largely uneasy with a potential Kerry Presidency.  Romney must avoid this at all costs.  He must portray Obama’s economic record as unfit to earn the President re-election.  Right now, Obama is even with Romney on most economic issues, but that has only been true since the Convention.  Romney must focus on these kitchen table issues and drive up negatives for Obama on the issue of jobs and the economy.

Second, Romney must somehow get Obama on the defensive.  The most apparent way I can think of is on foreign affairs, which up to this point has been an Obama strength.  Kerry was only able to put Bush on the defensive seriously on one occasion all through 2004; in the first Presidential debate.  Romney must score points on foreign affairs, which should be made all the easier with Obama recent bumbling on Libya, and his complete lack of vision in the Middle East.

Third, and most importantly, Romney’s campaign must set the agenda and control the news cycle.  This was something Kerry was never able to do, and frankly, Romney has largely been unable to do as well.  If I were in the Romney campaign, I would pick four topics to focus on, each for a week or so, until November.  Have ads ready to pound the Obama campaign on, and never let them distract you from the message.  Keep Obama defending his policies, which prevents him from scoring points on Romney.  Romney has been able to do that on at least two occasions this year:  1, when Obama had his ‘You didn’t build that’ gaffe, and after picking Paul Ryan as VP, where Romney and Ryan pounded the Democrats on Medicare for a week  or so.  But since that time, through the convention to now, the discussion has either been driven by the Democrats or outside events. Romney must regain control of the messaging war, and do it soon.

One last point, that has more to do with the state of the race as it stands today.  Kerry, before the debates and other than after his post-convention bounce, never came closer than 6 points to Bush.  The debates gave Kerry a boost that brought him within 2 points, but he never was able to make the closing sale after that.  If Romney can get a similar boost as Kerry did from the debates…this race is truly tied, and then it becomes a turnout election where enthusiasm matters…and I still believe Republicans on election day are going to be more excited.  Romney must score points at the debates, because that may be the last true game changer he has left.

Additionally, Romney right now trails by less than 4 points, assuming the polls are accurate.  Compare that to 2004, however.  At that time, there were a grand total of ZERO polls that showed Kerry with a lead any time in September and October.  However, Romney has led, at various times, in the Rasmussen poll, and has been largely even with Obama in the Gallup poll.  That is a polling situation Kerry could only have dreamed about.  Simply put:  the 2012 election is much closer at this point than the 2004 election; an election that Kerry lost by 120,000 votes in Ohio.

Romney has systemic advantages that Kerry had no opportunity to take advantage of.  So the openings are there.  The question is how soon and how hard Romney will use those to his benefit.

This was cross posted on Neoavatara.

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