Normally, no one would think that the Obama 2012 campaign had anything in common with the failed Bush re-election campaign of 1992. But there are more similarities than you would think.
Weekly Standard editor and Bloomberg columnist Andrew Ferguson, who was a speechwriter for George H.W. Bush in 1992, noticed a few similarities that only someone in the trenches would recall. The two campaigns both created a new "trust" theme at the last minute, printed millions of blue booklets promising a second-term agenda, and resorted to almost childish criticisms of the opposing campaign.
1. Last-minute "trust" theme.
Where did the trust theme come from? According to Ferguson, as October, 1992 came to a close, the Bush speechwriters were huddled, trying to come up with a slogan for the closing days of the campaign. They were "particularly anxious because at this rally in the Midwest, the president was going to road-test a new campaign theme.
One issue surpassed all others. President Bush said, 'It’s called trust. When you get down to it, this election will be like every other. Trust matters!'"
2. Complaints that the president had no agenda, resulting in a blue printed pamphlet with an inspirational title.
And the 1992 version:
Ferguson noted that that the Bush pamphlet is for sale on Amazon for $141, so those who received one of the 3.5 million Obama "New Economic Patriotism" pamphlets might want to hang onto them.
3. Undignified attacks on opponent
The 1992 insults included George H.W. Bush famously calling VP candidate Al Gore "Ozone Man," and attacking Bill Clinton for smoking pot, draft dodging, and being a Communist plant because of his trip to Russia.
A more substantive comparison from the 1992 campaign (aside from the absence of Ross Perot as third party candidate) could apply. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University analyzed voter motivation in the 1992 contest, concluding that abortion was the primary motivator.
According to Abramovitz, who published his research in the February, 1995 Journal of Politics, "Abortion had a stronger influence on candidate choice than any other policy issue included in the study, including affirmative action, social welfare, defense spending, the Gulf War, and the death penalty. Furthermore, among voters who were aware of the parties' positions and for whom abortion was a salient issue, abortion had a much stronger influence on candidate choice than any other issue, including the state of the economy."
In 1992, more pro-choice Republicans crossed over to vote for Clinton-Gore than pro-life Democrats voted for Bush, Abramowitz said. However, Abramowitz did leave Ross Perot completely out of his research. Since I was there in 1992, I can say that I decided not to vote for George H.W. Bush because he didn't seem to have a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish with a second four years. My choice was between Perot and Clinton, and I ultimately voted for Bill Clinton and Al Gore because they seemed young, enthusiastic, and just plain better than the alternatives.
Today, Democrats believe that abortion is still the issue that will motivate voters in 2012. I am not so sure it really was that large a motivating factor in 1992. Pew has already discounted it as a primary motivator today, with 44% of women citing it as the main reason for candidate selection, evenly split between pro-life and pro-choice positions.
History shows how well the "trust" message, last-minute blue pamphlet, and name-calling were for George H.W. Bush. On November 6, 20 years alter, we will see if those tactics are more effective for the Obama campaign.