CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Amid grim economic numbers, the incumbent president looks to many Americans like he is in over his head and ineffectual. But the polls remain close through the summer with voters uncertain whether they trust the challenger enough to turn over the White House.
How about this: Americans are deeply divided over the incumbent president's record, but the wealthy challenger from Massachusetts seems like a flip-flopper unable to relate to or connect with average Americans.
Both scenarios sound an awful lot like today's campaign between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
But the first is 1980, when Ronald Reagan trailed President Jimmy Carter at this point in the election but went on to win in a landslide. If you're a Republican, this is the analogy you prefer when looking at 2012.
"This could be 1980 where you have a incumbent who's challenged by circumstances and policies — the general sense of a well-meaning individual but failed policies," said Republican strategist Karl Rove. "The question is, does the challenger reassure the American people and go on to win."
As late as October, President Carter led Reagan in the polls, with many voters worried Reagan might be too extreme, too dangerous. After their lone debate, Reagan passed a threshold of comfort with Americans and went on to win 44 states.
If you're a Democrat, you prefer the second scenario: 2004, when despite widespread misgivings about George W. Bush's policies and record, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry could not close the sale. Throughout the summer, Republican groups blasted Kerry as an aloof, kite-sailing, flip-flopper, just as Democrats this year have spent millions trying to define Romney as a cold-hearted vulture capitalist who can't relate to average Americans.
"Definitely 2004," former Democratic U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman said Sunday in Charlotte, as she gathered with other Florida activists for the Democratic National Convention kicking off Tuesday. "Mitt Romney has no clue what my life is like or the life of my neighbors. There were some wonderful stories at the Republican convention about him helping other people struggling, but he didn't live that. We've all reached out to people, but that's different from living it."
Comparisons to prior presidential elections, of course, are faulty. The 2012 election cycle has its own unique dynamic and political landscape. Still, history does provide some guideposts for looking toward November.
Don't forget the revolution in how voters receive their information.
"In 1980, imagine if we had had the Internet or even fax machines. In 1992, the Web wasn't even born yet," said Tallahassee-based Republican consultant David Johnson. "If I had to put it in a frame, I liken this year more to '92. The economy was bad and people wanted something different."
Technology only escalates the desire for change, Johnson said.
"Today you have constant news cycles, so what used to take two weeks to churn through now takes about two hours. People are a lot more impatient in today's information age and they want immediate results," he said. "They did not see immediate results with the president, and he made a lot of promises."
Democratic fundraiser Mitchell Berger of Fort Lauderdale, though, notes that in 1992 George H.W. Bush likely would have beat Bill Clinton were it not for Ross Perot's third-party candidacy. And in 1980, the economy included both high unemployment and high inflation.
"And Jimmy Carter was not necessarily that well-liked," said Berger, who worked in the Carter administration, contrasting him to Obama, who remains well-liked personally.
George W. Bush won re-election with approval ratings about the same as Obama's, but that election was focused far more on national security than the economy, and America was in the midst of two wars.
Today, the average of national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics shows Obama with 46.4 percent support and Romney with 46.3 percent. That raises another comparison.
"It's Bush-Gore. This is going to be a photo-finish election," said Miami-based political consultant Roger Stone, who this year is advising Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson.
While Johnson appears to be hurting Obama in states with big university communities and many younger Ron Paul fans, Stone said GOP efforts to challenge his ballot access suggests Romney is the one most worried about Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico.
"That's why the voter suppression Republicans are doing is so important. I think it will cost Obama Florida," said Stone, a former longtime Republican. This election is going to be airtight. Every Hispanic vote, every Asian vote, every young vote is going to matter. … I just want to see if Gary Johnson can play the part of Ralph Nader."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]