One of the more intriguing narratives for election 2012 was proposed by political scientist Brendan Nyhan fairly early on: that it was “Bizarro 2004.” The parallels to that year certainly were eerie: An incumbent adored by his base but with middling approval ratings nationally faces off against an uncharismatic, wishy-washy official from Massachusetts. The race is tight during the summer until the president breaks open a significant lead after his convention. Then, after a tepid first debate for the incumbent, the contest tightens, bringing the opposition tantalizingly close to a win, but not quite close enough.
The Election Day returns actually continued the similarities. George W. Bush won by 2.4 percent of the popular vote, which is probably about what Obama’s victory margin will be once all the ballots are counted. Republicans in 2004 won some surprising Senate seats, and picked up a handful of House seats as well. The GOP was cheered, claiming a broad mandate as a result of voters’ decision to ratify clear, unified Republican control of Congress and the presidency for the first time since 1928. As Bush famously put it, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”
Democrats, like Republicans today, were despondent. Aside from having a president they loathed in the White House for four more years, they were terrified by what seemed to be an emerging Republican majority. John Kerry had, after all, hit all of his turnout targets, only to be swamped by the Republican re-election effort. “Values voters” was the catchphrase, and an inordinate number of keystrokes were expended trying to figure out how, as Howard Dean had memorably put it before the election, Democrats could reconnect with “guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.”