There was a rhythm to the calendar when I was growing up. They played the Super Bowl someplace warm in January, began the presidential primaries in New Hampshire in February, and opened the major league baseball season every April in Cincinnati.
Set aside my skepticism of dire climate change forecasts. I won’t deny what is happening right in front of me. In sports and politics, at least, today’s climate is radically different from that of my youth. Baseball’s season opener has migrated to Tokyo and moved up to March 28 and 29, when the Athletics will face the Mariners this year. We will be nearly a week into February when the Giants confront the Patriots in this Sunday’s Super Bowl, beneath a roof in Indianapolis. And, for all practical purposes, the presidential primary season ended yesterday with Mitt Romney’s Florida victory over the remaining Republican field.
Granted, Romney is far away from amassing the delegate total he will need to secure his party’s nomination at the Republican National Convention in late August, and Newt Gingrich vows to take his battle for the nomination all the way to the convention floor in Tampa. Rick Santorum continues to fight on as well, and Ron Paul says he has no intention of ending his quirky and low-budget libertarian quest. Paul is the only remaining GOP candidate who has yet to win a single state. He has a good chance of keeping that record intact.
None of this matters, because Romney is the only viable candidate in the Republican race. This makes him the winner by default. Gingrich has the resources to run but not to win, at least not in large states that will supply convention delegates in wholesale quantities. He will not even appear on the primary ballot in Virginia, where he has lived for many years, when that state votes on March 6 - otherwise known as Super Tuesday. Romney is far better prepared than Gingrich to fight on multiple fronts simultaneously, as in the 10 Super Tuesday states. Gingrich’s best shot that day will come in Georgia, which sent him to the House of Representatives more than a decade ago. But Romney gets to run in his home state of Massachusetts that same day, and he also is likely to steamroll Gingrich in Ohio, an important and large swing state, much as he did in Florida.
Gingrich will stay in the race for awhile because it enhances his prestige and, ultimately, his income from speaking and consulting. My guess is that he will get out when his continued presence threatens to damage the Gingrich brand.
I am not suggesting that Romney has won the hearts and minds of most Republicans at this point. He has, however, won the support of enough of the Republicans whose primary goal is to unseat President Obama to win the nomination. Once he grabs the nomination, most remaining Republican hearts and minds will follow.
Political climate change does not stop at the primaries. Traditional wisdom holds that average voters do not begin paying attention to presidential campaigns until after Labor Day. I suspect that, barring some dramatic development in late summer or autumn, the outcome of this year’s race will be effectively decided much earlier, possibly by Memorial Day and almost surely by Independence Day.
To understand why, we have to focus on what matters, and what doesn’t, in presidential elections. First, popular vote totals don’t matter, because we don’t elect presidents based on the popular votes; we elect them based on Electoral College votes. Obama (or, much less likely, Romney) could win the popular vote, even by a considerable margin, yet lose the election.
Second, most voters’ minds are already made up. Democrats will support Obama in overwhelming numbers. Republicans will support their nominee, even the Romney candidacy they are lukewarm about, in equally high proportions. In states dominated by one party, such as New York and California for Democrats or Texas and South Carolina for Republicans, the outcome is not in doubt.
The election will turn on the relative turnout among each party’s voters in a dozen or so states that could realistically go either way, and on the way the roughly 25 percent of independent voters divide in those swing states. The economy, or more specifically voters’ perception of their own situation and prospects, will be the deciding factor. So, what ultimately matters is, in a small number of states, a relatively small number of voters’ perception of their situation and prospects - along with the two parties’ ability to turn out their core voters.
There is still time for the picture to change, but I think that by early summer, most voters will have a pretty firm impression of their situation and prospects. They are not likely to respond to some piece of news in October and decide, “Wait a minute. Things aren’t so bad - I’m going to stick with what’s working” or to think “Holy Cow - it’s been four years since Lehman tanked and we still have serious problems. I’d better go with Romney.”
Right now, the picture for Obama is discouraging but not hopeless. We learned this week that GDP growth in the last quarter of 2011 was a disappointing 2.8 percent (based on preliminary figures), and that, worse, much of that growth came from inventory buildups that cannot continue for long. Housing prices continue to fall. Canadian GDP, which is reported monthly and is closely tied to American economic activity, came in yesterday at -0.1 percent for November. The pace of hiring and layoffs has improved lately, but continued soft economic reports like these are likely to lead businesses to stay conservative on their staffing, keeping unemployment high. European debt and austerity measures, Japan’s economic morass, and Chinese monetary tightening are not helping either.
The president needs some good economic news to persuade those critical nonaligned voters to stick with him for another four years. Barring that, Obama and fellow Democrats seem to want to inspire their base to turn out by blaming the economy’s failings on rich people and Republicans, neither of whom core Democrats tend to like very much. The problem is that core Democrats do like to have jobs, pay their mortgages and send their kids to college, and the president needs to convince them that they will do better in his next four years than they did in his first four.
Republican opposition to Obama, in contrast, has been strong and highly motivated since about midway through his first year in office. The president can hope that attacks by Gingrich and other rivals will weaken GOP enthusiasm for Romney enough to depress his party’s turnout in November. That seems like a faint hope to me, but we’ll see.
In baseball, the game truly isn’t over until the last out is recorded, but elections are more like football than baseball. There is a clock, and the game is not official until it expires, and sometimes we see a cliffhanger that goes down to the last second. Other times, however, the result is a foregone conclusion before the halftime show is over. This may well prove to be one of those contests in which the losing side’s cheerleaders keep dancing long after the players know how the game will end.