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What a 2004 Poll Tells Us About 2012

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Eight years ago, right before Republicans gathered in New York City from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 to renominate President George W. Bush for a second term, a newly released NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Bush vulnerable and in a dogfight against his challenger, a Massachusetts Democrat.

In many respects, that survey bears a striking similarity to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of 1,000 registered voters, conducted Aug. 16-20 of this year and released less than a week before the GOP convention. This time, it is President Barack Obama who is vulnerable and in a dogfight with his opponent, a Massachusetts Republican.

Both the August 2004 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of 806 registered voters and the most recent one were conducted jointly by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, two highly regarded professionals.

While some of the survey results in 2004 and 2012 are remarkably similar, there are at least a couple of dramatic differences. And they demonstrate why the outcome this November is so unpredictable.

The 2004 poll found Bush's job rating at 47 percent approve/48 percent disapprove, eerily similar to Obama's 48 percent approve/49 percent disapprove in this month's survey.

The public's assessment of Bush's handling of the economy back then, 43 percent approve/52 percent disapprove, was almost identical to their assessment of Obama's now, 44 percent approve/54 percent disapprove.

Those polled also had very similar feelings about Bush in 2004 and Obama now.

Bush was rated positively by 49 percent of those responding and negatively by 43 percent in the August 2004 survey. Obama's personal ratings were 48 percent positive and 43 percent negative in the August 2012 poll.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the nearly identical job and personal ratings, the August 2004 and August 2012 presidential ballot tests in the two surveys were, from a statistical point of view, identical, with Bush leading Sen. John Kerry 47 percent to 45 percent and Obama leading Mitt Romney 48 percent to 44 percent.

Of course, Bush went on to beat Kerry by just 2.1 points in November 2004 (50.4 percent to 48.3 percent) in a very close contest.

So where are the obvious differences between the 2004 and 2012 surveys?

First, Bush's foreign policy rating then was significantly worse than Obama's is now.

This month's Obama foreign policy job rating stood at 54 percent approve/40 percent disapprove, while Bush's was 44 percent approve/52 percent disapprove in August 2004.

The public still viewed Bush's policies on terrorism favorably, but they had become more skeptical about his policies regarding the war in Iraq. As a result, his foreign policy job approval had plummeted from a high of 81 percent after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to just 44 percent before the 2004 GOP convention.

But because voters did not have great confidence in Kerry as commander in chief (35 percent said they had a great deal/quite a bit of confidence in him, while 54 percent said just some/very little confidence), the issue did not seem to hurt Bush.

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