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What a 2004 Poll Tells Us About 2012

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Second, Kerry had somewhat higher personal ratings (44 percent positive/40 percent negative) before the 2004 GOP convention than Romney has now (38 percent positive/44 percent negative). And while the Democratic Party's rating isn't much different now from then, the Republican Party's is much worse: 44 percent positive/38 percent negative in 2004 compared with 36 percent positive/45 percent negative now.

All of those figures suggest Romney is in a more difficult position than Kerry was at roughly the same point eight years ago, though it is important to note that the 2004 Democratic convention, which took place in Boston from July 26-29, had already occurred. (The summer Olympics that year were held Aug. 13-29 in Athens, so Democrats needed to hold their convention well before it.)

Unlike Romney, Kerry had already introduced himself to the electorate, though according to CNN/USA Today/Gallup polling immediately before and after the '04 Democratic convention, he received no public opinion bounce from the event.

The August 2012 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, of course, was conducted before either convention occurred, though the amount of early television advertising this year might dilute the effect of both conventions.

The other difference between the 2004 survey and the 2012 poll may be even more important in understanding the September-October dynamic this year.

While the general mood of voters in both August 2004 and August 2012 can only be described as pessimistic, the current mood is clearly worse.

In the August 2004 survey, 36 percent of respondents said the country was headed in the right direction, while 50 percent said it was off on the wrong track. In this month's survey, only 32 percent said the country was heading in the right direction, while 61 percent said it was off on the wrong track.

The wrong track number - 11 points higher now than it was in the August 2004 survey - is an extremely dangerous number for Obama, and it suggests that, to win a second term, he must make the November election into a referendum on Romney's weaknesses and liabilities rather than on his own performance, which is exactly what the president has been doing.

On the other hand, if Romney can make himself more personally appealing or even acceptable to swing voters, he will have a much better chance of avoiding the same fate that befell Kerry in November 2004.

Of course, the past certainly doesn't predict the future, and both the presidential debates and the unemployment and new job numbers to be released in early September, October and November could move the presidential contest noticeably before Nov. 6.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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