Could the 2012 Election Be 2004 All Over Again?

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(l to r): Win McNamee / Getty Images, Rebecca Cook / Reuters

Senator John Kerry, left, in Washington, D.C., December 21, 2010, and Mitt Romney, right, Detroit, Michigan, June 9, 2011.

There’s been a lot of buzz inside the Beltway about how this year’s crop of GOP wannabes is strikingly similar to the Democratic cast of George W. Bush challengers in 2004.

You have a frontrunner who is playing it safe and betting that his credentials will give him a leg up on the key issue of the cycle: In 2004, John Kerry’s foreign policy experience and military service were supposed to give him the edge on Iraq, and in 2012, Mitt Romney’s private sector background is suited for an electorate concerned about the economy. You have an old timer shooting high on his last lap: Dick Gephardt played that role in 2004 and Newt Gingrich seems to be after something similar this time around. You have the young, telegenic challenger whose resume looks great on paper: John Edwards and Tim Pawlenty. There’s the Beltway darling with the potential to soar if he can ignite a spark – and has the energy to see it through: Wes Clark and Jon Huntsman. And you have the populist firebrand: Howard Dean in 2004 and Michele Bachmann in 2012.

As in 2004, the challengers’ base is similarly discontented with the field. The GOP base arguably hates Barack Obama about as much as Democrats loathed George W. Bush. But will that inspire pragmatism in the form of picking Romney, the guy with perhaps the best credentials to beat Obama, or will the Tea Party energy of 2010 carry over to boost an insurgent the base truly loves, like Bachmann? In 2004, many Democrats’ slogan was ‘Dated Dean, Married Kerry.’ It’s hard to imagine folks saying, ‘Dated Bachmann, Married Romney,’ in 2012’s climate.

But let’s say the base does get pragmatic and picks Romney. If anything, 2004 showed that dislike of the other guy isn’t enough to win an election win. To overthrow an incumbent, as Ronald Reagan did, the opposition must not only hate the guy in the Oval Office but also love their candidate. In order to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2004, the base might be better served by betting on a relative long shot whom they love. The odds might be low – can anyone imagine Dean beating Bush in 2004? Or Bachmann beating Obama next year? But in 2004, approval of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were holding steady in the polls. In 2012, a cratering economy could give a real shot to whomever the GOP picks.