There have been 56 presidential elections in our nation’s history, and just about every one of them has been compared to the others. Historians and political junkies are always seeing the next election as a replay of some earlier match.

There have been 56 presidential elections in our nation’s history, and just about every one of them has been compared to the others.


Historians and political junkies are always seeing the next election as a replay of some earlier match. The election of 2012 falls in the category of incumbents seeking a second term.


Republicans have been comparing it to 1980, when a Democratic incumbent viewed as weak and ineffectual (Jimmy Carter) was swamped by a Republican superhero (Ronald Reagan).


Democrats have given up hoping for another 1936, when Franklin Roosevelt swept Alf Landon in all but two states. But they like the idea of replaying 1984, when Reagan’s personal popularity lifted him over Walter Mondale despite a still sluggish economy, and they’d settle for 2004, when George W. Bush swiftboated his way to a second term in a squeaker.


Let me suggest 1996.


Like Barack Obama, Bill Clinton had had a rough first term. He started with Democratic majorities in Congress, but still ran into trouble on culture war issues like gays in the military and gun control. His biggest priority, health care reform, never came to a vote. His budget, which included tax increases, barely passed on a strict party line vote.


Some of Clinton’s opponents were rabid, spinning conspiracy theories blaming him for drug-running and the death of Vince Foster. Some Democrats wanted nothing to do with him. In the mid-term elections, Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, took over both the House and the Senate, and they proceeded to make his life even more miserable. There were big showdowns over raising the federal debt ceiling and threats to shut down the government over budget impasses.


Sound familiar?


Obama has been plagued by his own rabid detractors and conspiracy theorists. He won some legislative victories on party-line votes, but he lost the House in the mid-term elections.


In January of 1996, Clinton’s approval rating stood at 42 percent. That’s exactly where Gallup has Obama’s approval rating today.


The 1996 Republican field was wide but lackluster. It featured governors (California’s Pete Wilson, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander), senators (Phil Gramm, Arlen Specter, Bob Dole, Dick Lugar); a millionaire with a flat tax plan (Steve Forbes); a commentator (Pat Buchanan) and a fringe congressman (Bob Dornan).


This year’s race has included two fringe congress members (Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul) — three if you count Newt Gingrich –– along with an ex-senator (Rick Santorum), four governors or ex-governors (Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty) and a businessman with a flat tax plan (the now departed Herman Cain).


In 1996, Phil Gramm came roaring out of Texas with an accent thick as molasses, clucking that “the politician’s best friend is ready cash” –– then fell on his face on the national stage. This year’s rich Texan is Rick Perry, and his fund-raising prowess also became less impressive as soon as he opened his mouth.


The large GOP field in ’96 didn’t exactly fire up voters. Several potentially popular contenders ­–– including Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld –– considered runs but decided against it. The most exciting non-candidate was Gen. Colin Powell, but his dalliance with a presidential race coincided with his book tour, then he lost interest once he’d maximized the publicity value.


This time around, the celebrity maybe-candidate was Donald Trump, who used the speculation to boost the ratings of “The Celebrity Apprentice.” And there’s been a long list of candidates who resisted the increasingly desperate pleas of party insiders to run: Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and, of course, Sarah Palin.


After some surprise early primary victories by Buchanan and Forbes, the 1996 GOP primary campaign became a long slog, where Dole’s advantage in organization and party endorsements came into play. He wasn’t personally popular with Republican voters, nor was he beloved by movement conservatives. But in a weak field, he looked the most presidential, and it was his turn.


Is Mitt Romney the Bob Dole of 2012, respected by Republicans but not loved? We’ll have to see if the Gingrich boomlet blasts off or fizzles. But if the primary road turns to a long slog, which at this point seems likely, Romney has the same advantages in money, organization and establishment endorsements that worked so well for Dole. As it turned out in the general election, independents were even less fond of Dole than Republicans.


But the factor that really put Clinton over the top in 1996 was a quirky little candidate with an independent streak and a small but enthusiastic band of followers: Ross Perot. Perot threw the election to Clinton in ‘92 and gave him a big hand in ‘96. That year’s final tally: Clinton 49 percent, Dole 41 percent, Perot 8 percent.


Will history repeat itself? Ron Paul is quirky and independent, with a small but committed band of supporters. With his anti-war, anti-government views, he could outflank Obama and Romney on both the left and the right. He has run as a third-party candidate before, accepting the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination in 1988. He might be especially inspired to run if the GOP nominee is Gingrich, with whom Paul has clashed before.


But Paul isn’t the only contender for the spoiler role. With the campaign funding gates now wide open and several independent organizations reserving ballot spots for yet-to-be-named nominees, the field has rarely been so open to third party candidates.


Some, like former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, are already testing the waters for an independent run. If a well-financed celebrity like Trump or Palin jumped in, all bets are off. If a respectable moderate Republican like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a run, we could see a repeat not of 1996 but of 1980, when moderate Republican John Anderson’s independent bid ended up hurting the Democrat, adding to Reagan’s landslide.


“History doesn’t repeat itself,” a saying often (but not definitively) attributed to Mark Twain says, “at best it sometimes rhymes.”


Check back with me a year from now, and we’ll have a better idea which previous presidential election best rhymes with 2012.


Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News in Massachusetts, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com.