Published September 10, 2012
“It’s certainly not what I would call the position we wanted to be in at this point in the race. He’s going to have to make the case that we wouldn’t even be at 8 percent if it weren’t for him.”
-- A senior Obama administration official talking to the New York Times about the economy and its effect on the election.
An embattled incumbent with weak job approval and a grouchy, sharply divided electorate rolls out of his convention and opens a lead on his challenger, a Massachusetts politician whose primary resume point has been turned into a liability by personal attack ads.
That lead would prove durable, and take George W. Bush into a second term and ensure that his most controversial policies in the Global War on Terror – the main issue in the election – would be maintained, many of them even to this day.
Bush left the 2004 Republican National Convention with a bounce of something like 9 points. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had led for most of the summer and the conventional wisdom was that Bush, owing to broad disapproval for the Iraq war, was kaput.
But as voters began to pay attention to the race, they found Kerry wanting. The ads from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked Kerry on his Vietnam record and his subsequent efforts against the war.
The endlessly replayed video of Kerry accusing his comrades of atrocities like those of “Genghis Kahn” made it awkward when the Democratic nominee stepped to the stage in Boston for his party’s convention and saluted, announcing that he was “reporting for duty.”
Neither did it hurt that Bush’s convention bounce was bolstered by the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, just nine days later. Just as Kerry was being called craven and unpatriotic, Americans were reminded of Bush’s leadership after the attacks just three years prior.
The 2004 convention accelerated a trend that had been working in Bush’s advantage. The incumbent was down 5 points in mid-July in the ABC News/Washington Post poll, but up 9 points after the convention. He would surrender the lead, but the trajectory had clearly changed as voters tuned in and began to pay attention.
The election would be close, with Bush pulling out a 2.4 percent popular vote win and an electoral victory predicated on a margin of 118,601 votes in Ohio out of 5.6 million cast in the Buckeye State.
This is the scenario that President Obama had envisioned for this year and with early signs of a post-convention bounce for the president, many in the political press are starting to rally to the idea. Politico proclaimed, “State of the Race: Advantage Obama.”
But Obama has had the advantage on paper all along. He has consistently led in the polls since May, has outspent his opponent in dramatic fashion and benefits from favorable press coverage and all the advantages of incumbency
Unlike Bush, Obama is trying hard to defend a small lead, not mount a comeback. Obama has steadily held a small lead in swing-state polls and nationally. He has dumped tens of millions of dollars in caustic, personal attack ads on Romney. He has campaigned almost without cease since Labor Day 2011.
The conventional wisdom is that the race will remain unchanged and that Obama will continue to hold or even expand his edge. And polls taken over the weekend suggest that Obama got a nudge of as much as 5 points from his prime-time extravaganza in Charlotte.
But re-elections are about tipping point moments. Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by 5 points or more at this point in 1980. Reagan would go on to win a 10-point smash over the incumbent.
What the conventional wisdom misses is that while the pool of self-described “undecided” voters may be small, the pool of persuadable voters remains very large. And with an incumbent president, people are less likely to start paying close attention early. The Republican primary contest offered sparks of interest but wrapped up more quickly and conclusively than many expected.
The two weeks of political infomercials that took place in Charlotte and Tampa were the cue to voters to start paying attention. The next big moment, the first presidential debate on Oct. 3, will be the time that the game can really change.
While the similarities with 2004 are notable, Obama’s position is appreciably worse than Bush’s. He has lower job-approval ratings, the nation is more pessimistic and the character attacks are proving less effective than those launched by Bush-backers against Kerry.
It’s the last one that’s most important. Romney has so far survived, and while hardly beloved by the electorate, forced Democrats in Charlotte to concede that he was a “good man” and shift their attacks more to policy and away from the personal.
The under-funded Obama political action committee and others will continue to call him a cancer-callous vampire, the Obama campaign has shifted its attack to the thornier issues of tax rates, Medicare and other points where Republicans can offer easier rebuttals. The cost to Obama’s reputation of being the antagonist in such searingly personal attacks was too great.
With all signs showing that Obama will face deep disapproval of his handling on the economy on Election Day, any bounce that comes out of the convention seems unlikely to last even until the two men first face off in Denver.
The state of the race is this: Romney has lived long enough to get into the final quarter with the frontrunner in reach. He may win by 6 points or lose by 10, but don’t be deceived into believing this is a replay of 2004.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30 am ET at live.foxnews.com.