The conventional wisdom about Barack Obama’s path to reelection is that, though the president is unpopular, he will run a strongly negative campaign against the GOP nominee – tarring him as a radical or (in the case of Mitt Romney) an unprincipled flip-flopper. Thus, voters who might not be happy with him will nevertheless support his reelection because it’s better to back the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.
The template for this is supposedly the George W. Bush 2004 campaign, which is ironic because Democrats howled in protest over the allegedly extreme negativity of that contest. Regardless, Obama hopes to do what Bush did to John Kerry: attack him so relentlessly that people can’t support him.
What to make of this approach? Put simply: It is a weak political strategy with little historical evidence to validate it. …
… The takeaway point from this is that the strategy Obama plans to run in 2012 scored Bush exactly zero electoral votes in 2004. In most states, we see the same pattern as we did nationwide: Bush won between 5 and 10 percent of people who disapprove of him, far too small a portion to swing any states his way.
If anything, Kerry did a better job at peeling away voters from the “other” side than Bush did. Bush’s job approval among 2004 voters was 53 percent, yet he won just short of 51 percent of the vote – because about 10 percent of all Bush supporters chose to back Kerry. These Bush approvers/Kerry voters cost Bush four states.