One important element of context for Democratic Party attacks against Mitt Romney is the widespread perception in DC that George W Bush launched highly successful attacks on John Kerry themed around the idea that Kerry was a flip-flopper. The reality is that Kerry over-performed relative to fundamentals-based models in a way that’s consistent with the basic idea that Bush was operating under a cloud of illegitimacy and that a decorated war hero was a strong candidate for the Democratic Party.
Perhaps the best way to get at what I think is wrong with the character assassination theory of the 2004 campaign is that it explains something that doesn’t need explaining. Consider this exit poll result:
Kerry actually did a better job of persuading people who approved of Bush’s job performance to vote for the challenger anyway than Bush did of persuading people who disapproved of his job performance to vote for the incumbent anyway. This is, I think, strong evidence that anti-Kerry sentiments played little explanatory role in the election. You had an incumbent president and a majority of the voters liked his job performance. Under the circumstances, re-election follows naturally. Many Democrats seem to have persuaded themselves that Bush got re-elected despite being unpopular, but I see little evidence for this.