It's the sort of question you toss out to a table full of politics buffs — sharing a pitcher of cold beer. (We'll provide the aficionados; you imagine the table and the cold pitcher.)
Which presidential election in American history most resembles the coming election between President Obama and Mitt Romney — and why?
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Republican challenger, Kansas Gov. Alfred M. Landon (left), meet in September 1936.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Republican challenger, Kansas Gov. Alfred M. Landon (left), meet in September 1936. AP
1936: Franklin Delano Roosevelt vs. Alf Landon, says Alison Dagnes, who teaches political science at Shippensburg University. "The Republicans tried to attack FDR for his New Deal programs, saying they were too expensive and moved the country toward socialism — sound familiar?"
The problem, she says, is that once a president gives the people new rights, the public grows attached and wants to keep them. "This is going to be the case for the health care program, which the Obama campaign is now terming 'Obamacare' for its own purposes. The campaign is gambling on this FDR-style move of giving more to the public, who will want to keep it. Same goes for the rest of the social programs Obama is touting today — it's expensive, all right, but who doesn't want a better educated public? Et cetera."
She adds that "we are far more politically divided today than in 1932, and — thanks to seven or eight cycles of redistricting our congressional elections — far more sharply partisan. This is why the 1936 Electoral College split of 523 to 8 would be highly unlikely — regardless of the math adjustment. But I do think that when the American people are happy with their lives, then the incumbent gets to keep his job."
President Jimmy Carter shakes hands with Republican challenger Ronald Reagan before a debate in Cleveland in October 1980.
President Jimmy Carter shakes hands with Republican challenger Ronald Reagan before a debate in Cleveland in October 1980. AP
1980: Jimmy Carter vs. Ronald Reagan, says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. He cites the similarities: "Young, unknown president is elected after an unpopular administration — Nixon/Ford, Bush — economy in the doldrums, problems with Iran, sense of malaise. Republicans nominate the person who finished second place in the previous nomination — Reagan to Ford in 1976, Romney to McCain in 2008 — after a divisive nomination struggle. But the GOP came together in 1980 and are coming together in 2012, while the economy continues to drag at the incumbent."
Back in 1980, Smith says, Carter went "very negative against Reagan ... because he could not claim success with the economy, and Obama looks to do the same thing this year. Only waiting for Romney to ask if you're better off than you were four years ago."
President George W. Bush passes behind Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., after a debate in Tempe, Ariz., in October 2004.
President George W. Bush passes behind Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., after a debate in Tempe, Ariz., in October 2004. Ron Edmonds/AP
2004: George W. Bush vs. John Kerry. "Definitely 2004," says Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University. "This year, just as in 2004, you have an incumbent president running for re-election in a polarized and closely divided electorate."
Obviously, he says, some things are different: The Democrat is in the White House and the Republican is the challenger, and the economy is the major concern of voters this year instead of the war in Iraq. "But there are some striking similarities," he says. "And the result is again likely to be a close election in which the outcome will come down to a few swing states. In fact, some of the same swing states — Ohio, Florida, Iowa and New Hampshire — along with a couple of new ones — Virginia and North Carolina."
Gerhard Peters, who in 1999 helped create the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that the analogy "depends on what variables I am to use to compare 2012. If it's the Electoral College landscape, combined with a marginally popular president, I would say 2004."
And Marc Schulman, co-founder of MultiEducator — a New York-based history software company — says: "The best one I came up with was Bush vs. Kerry, and that is a bit of a stretch. In trying to look at comparisons, it's important to look at a few things: First, America has never ditched a president in the time of war. That goes all the way back to [James] Madison in the War of 1812, even when they have not been all that popular — for example, Bush in 2004."
The 2012 election will present "a situation similar to 2004 when a substantial minority never accepted the original victory of the president," Schulman says, "and you have an economy that is and was sliding sideways."
Also this time around, he says, the president is facing a wealthy opponent — Romney instead of Kerry.
True enough, there are some parallels with 1996 — when Republican Bob Dole ran against Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton — Schulman says, but "Dole was perceived as too old" by many of the voters.
"Plus the economy was not a problem for Clinton," Schulman says. "It is for Obama."