Is this 1980 or 2004? (updated to include chart link)

Throughout this political season, political junkies have wondered whether the Obama-Romney race more closely resembles the Carter-Reagan contest of 1980 or the Bush-Kerry race of 2004. The former featured an unsuccessful, unpopular president and a challenger about whom the public was, for some time, highly skeptical. The latter pitted a president about whom the public was highly skeptical against a challenger who was rather unpopular.

My instinct told me that this year’s race is more like 1980. But until recently, the polling data, though not necessarily inconsistent with a 1980 scenario, suggested that this is more like 2004.

But check out this great chart from Real Clear Politics, and you will see that we are starting to diverge from the 2004 model. The pre-first debate polls from both that year and this one show the incumbent with a clear lead, with Bush’s generally a bit larger than Obama’s. The polls following the first debate show a tighening of both races.

But by late October 2008, Bush had restored much of his lead, and was ahead by 2.5 to 3 points. By contrast, Romney is ever-so-slightly ahead of Obama in the RCP average.

Along the same lines, consider that, so far as I recall, John Kerry never got to 50 percent in any of the polls I looked at, whereas George Bush occasionally crossed that threshold. This caused me to write shortly before the election that Kerry would have to break new ground to obtain a majority of the popular vote, something I doubted he would accomplish.

But Romney has been over 50 percent in several Gallup polls and is at 50 percent in the latest Rasmussen survey. Moreover, the Real Clear Politics averages suggest that Obama must break more new ground than Romney to secure a popular majority.

What to conclude? First, the polls still say this will be a close race, along the lines of 2004, rather than the rout we witnessed in 1980. And I believe the polls in this respect. Second, though, the 2004 model should no longer provide great comfort to Team Obama.

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