There has been a strong case to use 2004 as a case study for this November. I understand the argument: A divisive, but personable incumbent with marginally respectable approval ratings against an unlikeable, flip flopping, prone to silly gaffes, challenger who the base is even relecutant to rally around. That being said, I think you need to look much deeper; and when you do, I think it's impossible to conclude that even with these similarities, the differences are too detailed to prove the same result as 8 years ago.
2004 is a flawed analogy. First, the 2012 election follows an election on the brink of a landslide; the 2000 election was a squeaker. President Obama would have to lose more to lose in 2012. I can't see any constituency of 2008 that he could lose except for the nabobs of Wall Street who wanted someone to save the economy and now are more concerned with tax breaks. That is a few tens of thousands of voters heavily located in states that are going to vote for President Obama by 15% or more anyway. President Obama can lose those and win much as he did in 2012. The other constituencies that voted for him -- minorities, women, organized labor, highly-educated people, government employees -- show no signs of going some other way.
Second, Barack Obama is a far better President than George W. Bush. Of course, Dubya left much delayed damage in his wake before 2004 that few recognized as such.
Essentially, if you want to use the 2004 election as an analogy, you have to adjust for a few things:
1. Obama is running 5%-8% or so worse off than George W. Bush was at this time. It may seem slight, but in a close election it could prove critical.
Possible -- but Americans had yet to sour on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a prisoner, but things were not going to get better. Support for Dubya went from astronomical to abysmal; this time eight years ago his support was still strong.
It is more significant that the President is doing none of the things that can cause trouble. He is a cautious leader, and I can't see him risking re-election.
2. While Romney's favorables are bad now, they only are so low due to the Primary. They will rise, especially with Republicans (see point 3 below). I think, ultimately, Romney is stronger than Kerry when it comes to appeal - he's much more enthusiastic and energized, and less prone to major gaffes.
One way of looking at that is to say that we see his floor and he has plenty of room for improvement. But can he improve enough?
3. The GOP base will rally around Romney. They are down on him now because it was a pick of Romney over several other Republican candidates. In November, it will be Romney against Obama. So while Romney may not have been the #1 pick of the deep conservatives out there, when it's a choice between Romney, Obama, or not voting (which would essentially be a choice for Obama), they'll turn out in order to dethrone the incumbent they so badly despise.Partisan bases are never enough for winning a Presidential election.
Goldwater and McGovern both won the partisan bases of their Parties, but little else even if those bases were wildly supportive of their candidates.
You are right that many Republicans revile President Obama -- but unless they convince enough of those who voted for him in 2008 to vote for Mitt Romney the President wins re-election.
4. The number one issue of the electorate in 2012 is the economy. The number one issue of the electorate in 2004 was national security (was still the 9/11 aftermath). George Bush had a commanding lead with national security - the rally effect was still going strong, albeit starting to peter out, the anti-Iraq War brigade didn't even emerge yet, and hurricane Katrina was still a year away. Whereas now, Romney is seen trusted with the economy, while Obama's approvals on the issue are somewhere around the 30% mark. Sure, the economy is slightly improving, and if it does continue, and, more so, picks up pace, the better the chances are for Obama.
But this (4) is a huge hole in the 2004 analogy. GWB had a commanding lead over the major issue of the electorate, whereas Obama has been seen flailing, failing, and coming up short.
Conceded here -- it is the big issue. It was also the big issue in 1936, too. Expectations are down from where they were before the economic meltdown of 2007-2009 because people see a great fraud of a speculative boom as the cause of the meltdown.
Of course President Obama has failed to inspire a fresh speculative boom. Nobody would trust any politician who promises a new one. To his credit Mitt Romney has scrupulously avoided any promise of a speculative boom. He has instead offered an intensification of old-fashioned trickle-down economics that promises pain for multitudes for quick gain by the few with promises of an acceleration of investment due to cheap labor and low taxes upon the super-rich.
If out of desperation he promises a fresh economic boom based upon speculative activity he
dooms his campaign. Nobody will trust that. But "no speculative boom" also means nearly no chance of an economic meltdown.
5. Now that I think about it, 2004 wasn't really a surprise - it took us right back to an almost 50-50 split, which was, essentially, the result of the prior 2000 election. My point? While Bush fell from 90% down to around 54% from September 12, 2001 to circa April 2004, that had more to do with the rally effect petering out rather than any perceived (at that time) faults during his first term. Compare that to Obama who fell from ~70% (these are rough estimates based on memory, too lazy to look every one of them up) to as low as 39% (now back to the mid to up 40s) over the course of his 4 years, but his story was one of his own making (unpopular health care, failed/unproductive stimulus, poor economy, Libya, etc).
But the 2008 election was nearly a 53-46 split. Dubya was the definitive empty suit of a President, a stooge of interests that he did not understand. He was never a good speaker, and he frequently used language intended to obscure the ultimate agenda. His biggest legislative achievements were drains on the treasury without mitigation. He rode the early results of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to an electoral victory.
If you think that the Affordable Care Act is unpopular, then wait till you see how unpopular the Ryan plan to privatize Medicare is. Basically the elderly rich will get first-rate medical care, the elderly of the middle class will get second-rate care until their money dries up, and the elderly poor will just have to die. Separate the Affordable care Act into its components and those components are popular. The Stimulus began when Dubya was President when the Secretary of the Treasury, the Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the head of the Federal Reserve Bank so dictated.
The stimulus worked. The economy is in better shape now than it was in 2009. A boom is impossible and about everyone knows that.
...Does anyone wax nostalgic for the tyrannical, murderous, terrorist-enabling, war-mongering regime of Moammar Qaddafi?
Basically, my point here is that Bush was always divisive, hence the 2000 split, but people weren't intent on making a referendum against him on his first four years, but they are doing so on Obama's. Pretty important difference, if you ask me.
The referendum works both ways. President Obama has done well in achieving the promises that he made to core constituencies without offending a large group of potential voters. He doesn't need to make fresh promises to a part of the electorate that did not vote for him in 2008 to get re-elected (that's really the Carter analogue).
Overall. Overall, I do see why people think the 2004 election is an analogy. But remember, no election is like any other. While Obama may win a close election resembling how Bush won his in 2004, and while some reasons may be the same, it won't tell the whole story.
Barack Obama became President of a deeply-divided nation with plenty of questions remaining about his stability, competence, core values, and experience. He has been a fine President from the standpoint of getting legislation passed when he had a cooperative Congress. He has proved an above-average diplomat and a fine Commander-in-Chief. He has not proved 'soft-on-crime'. Maybe he learned something from his experience as a Community Organizer -- that street crooks aren't 'misunderstood people who just happened to have been dealt a bad set of cards'. One would never learn that as a corporate lawyer who deals all the time with high-functioning sociopaths instead of the low-functioning sociopaths who deal drugs and pimp girls. President Obama has wisely left what he knows least about -- military and intelligence operations -- to those who know what they are doing.
Maybe he isn't the starry-eyed, bleeding-heart, guilt-laden liberal as the Right wished to depict him. I can assure you -- most liberals are patriots who have no illusions about criminals being 'poor little lambs who have lost their way'.
That being said, I think the differences outlined above also show that it could very easily go the other way.
I just think it's too simplistic to look at obvious similarities and think that it will follow the 2004 election - there's too many key differences that could easily dictate otherwise.
The ideologues who want America to be a country of severe inequality between gross need and opulent indulgence will find more of a purist... and Mitt Romney has been pandering to them well. The people who would never under any circumstances vote for anyone not white have seen no change in circumstances. People who still think that he is a foreign usurper are not going to vote for him.
But people who had their fears and find those fears unfounded might to some extent vote differently in 2012. Fewer Obama voters of 2008 are going to believe their 2008 votes mistakes and vote differently. He hasn't kissed up to crooks and he hasn't used the federal government as a patronage system to his core constituencies. If he has apologized for Dubya's blunders he has also given America much less for which to apologize.