The US election is six months off. The major candidates, President Barack Obama and former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, are now known. What should we expect from this campaign?
First, we should recall that all US elections tend to have a similar rhythm, the build-up to the conventions in August, the convention hysteria itself, and the brutal, final ten weeks of frantic campaigning. To help see how this will go we should look at the patterns of recent elections. Second, there is always the introduction of new elements into the campaign, and this campaign will be special in this way. And finally, there are the imponderables and what ifs that bedevil campaign strategists, candidates, and observers. Out of these factors we may fashion an impressionist painting of the next six months.
THE REPUBLICAN NOMINATION: OBAMA WATCHES THE BLOODBATH
Most observers feel that American politics has become much more rancorous and partisan in the last three decades. That was even obvious during the Republican primary race during which the candidates worked hard to destroy each other. In particular there was a concerted effort to deny Mitt Romney the nomination. The other candidates argued he couldn’t win because he was a Mormon, or too Left-wing, or too moderate, or too bland, or too out-of-touch, or too gaffe-prone. And he was all of these things. On the other hand, all of the other candidates were at least equally inept. But the primary battle was brutal, and while the losing candidates are now endorsing Romney, the wounds are still there. One should not overestimate this + squabbling.
By convention time, in all likelihood, the party will be united and sweetness and light will prevail. Up until then there will be the beginnings of a campaign against the President. Everyone in the Republican camp will join in their own way.
President Obama rarely made the political radar this spring due to the mesmerizing contest on the other side, and he was pleased to stay presidential and watch the bloodbath. Now his campaign is ramping up, with carefully selected “non-political” stops mainly in key battle states.
DEMOCRACY AMERICAN STYLE
By August most Americans will have heard as much as they would really like from each campaign. But then there will be the furor and massive coverage of the conventions. Fortunately this is
an Olympic year, and there is always baseball and soap operas, so most voters can avoid the convention coverage. Many will watch the big acceptance speeches, but that is all.
In the period after the conventions it will be hell to live in a state that is up for grabs. Citizens in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida will be subjected to candidate visits, constant and increasing television adverts, even door-to-door visitors. There will be no escape. I live in Texas, so no such problem exists. Romney will win here and his electors will assemble in Austin and cast their votes for him regardless of how I or anyone I know votes. That is democracy, American style.
If the pattern of recent elections repeats itself, this will be a referendum on Obama’s presidency. Romney wants that, and so does the President. We’ll come back to that.
CAMPAIGN FUNDING AND THE PRICE OF A US ELECTION
Most election resemble previous ones in important ways. This one will as well, but it will also be a departure in at least one potentially crucial way: money.
Now campaign funding is always fundamentally important but this is the first election since the Citizens case made corporations and unions “persons” in terms of their freedom of speech meaning that they may spend unlimited funds to promote candidates. And they may form PACs (Political Action Committees) to do this. If they wish to do this cleverly they can keep their contributors secret. There is some precedent for this in the 19th century, and 1896 still stands out as one of the most expensive campaigns ever (in real dollar terms), but this is entirely new in recent politics.
This means several things. First, this will be the most expensive election ever. Now it was going to be that in any case, but the jump will be enormous. Reports are that the Romney primary campaign and the PACs supporting it spent over 122 million dollars, or about $30 per vote. Estimates of the Obama/Romney race are that each side will spend over a billion (yes that is a billion) dollars. It could be well over that.
US ELECTIONS AND THE GROWING IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Most of this money will, understandably, come from corporations and the very rich. It will buy these agents policy favors from the next administration. And it may well determine the outcome. Note that the very poor are also free to spend as much as they wish on the presidential campaign. This huge pot of cash will also lead to a surge in the use of relatively new marketing means, like social media.
Already in use by politicos, social media will grow in importance in this campaign. Twitter, Facebook, and the other internet hotspots will all become more important than ever before. The campaigns themselves may not be able to control the messages put forth in their names. It may be a new age in US campaigns, one in which supporters and proxies dominate the media and overwhelm the messages the candidates wish to hone carefully. We should all pay attention to this trend.
THE UNKOWN UNKNOWNS: MANAGING THE CAMPAIGN
Lastly, every four years imponderables arise to affect the campaign and its outcome. Some of these may be rather predictable: hurricanes and the way they are handled by the government, economic crises like the possibility of a crisis in Europe, the ‘Occupy’ movement being radicalized. Others cannot be foreseen. Previous examples include the Palin effect in 2008 and the role of Ross Perot in 1992. Even in these cases it is not the event or person that matters as much as the ability of the campaign to manage it or even turn it to its advantage. That takes skill and a little luck. It is also where devastating mistakes can be made.
Many think the 2008 election was decided by the banking crisis, or rather by the way McCain looked incompetent in its face, whereas Obama seemed cool and in control. It is always crucial to look presidential. Reagan did, Carter didn’t. Obama did, McCain didn’t.
HANG ON TO YOUR HATS…
In the end this will be one of the most important and fascinating elections in living memory. Hold on to your hat, much is at stake in the next six months, and the twists and turns that we will witness will intrigue and amaze us.
The author is a former Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of North Texas.