We’re down to the home stretch of 100 days left to Election Day on November 4th. It’s been a fascinating process thus far seeing the fall of the front runners for each party earlier this year and the first nomination of an African-American for a major political party.
WASHINGTON â€” The longest presidential election season in American history is about to enter its final stretch.
Count ’em: 100 days to go.
In the time before Nov. 4, running mates will be chosen and platform skirmishes fought, economic reports released and as many as one-third of votes cast early by absentee ballot and at registrars’ offices. Will more U.S. troops be pulled out of Iraq? Could a so-called October surprise be sprung, by calculation or catastrophe, that reshapes the campaign’s close?
Both campaigns are acutely conscious of the passage of time. At Barack Obama’s headquarters in Chicago, a countdown calendar hangs just outside campaign manager David Plouffe’s office. The same count appears on white boards throughout John McCain’s headquarters in a Virginia suburb of Washington.
“The momentum and intensity of the campaign builds almost every day as you approach the election,” says Tad Devine, a strategist for Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. “You spend a lot of time planning for the events you know about, and you spend a lot of time reacting to the events that just happen.”
Some of the customary rhythms of a presidential campaign were disrupted this year after the Summer Olympics were pushed back two weeks. That squeezed the end-of-summer interval for the political conventions and prompted the GOP to schedule the first major-party convention to take place after Labor Day.
Not that either side has been waiting for the traditional Labor Day kickoff to the general-election campaign. By measures such as money raised and field forces deployed, the 2008 campaign already is setting records.
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Obama has been campaigning for nearly two years, since acknowledging on NBC’s Meet the Press in October 2006 that he was considering a bid for the Democratic nomination. McCain effectively has been running even longer, since his embrace of former rival President Bush at the 2004 Republican convention made it clear the Arizona senator was positioning himself for his second White House run.
Now Obama holds a lead over McCain, 49%-40%, in Gallup’s most recent tracking poll.
“Neither campaign has made the sale,” says Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who helped run presidential campaigns for Ronald Reagan in 1984, Ross Perot in 1992 and Mike Huckabee this year. “The battle is the independent vote, and they don’t make up their minds until late.”
As they do, here are events to watch between now and Nov. 4.
â€¢ Aug. 8 Fighting Olympics fever
The opening of the Summer Olympics creates a black hole for politics as voters tune in to gymnastics and swimming instead of town halls and attack ads. “The Olympics generally suck all the air out of a political campaign,” Rollins says.
How can a candidate break through during the Olympics’ two-week run?
One strategy: join the Games. The Obama campaign is buying a $5 million Olympics ad package on NBC that includes time on the broadcast network and its cable affiliates. The McCain campaign isn’t ready to disclose its plans for the Olympics time period, spokesman Brian Rogers says, though it’s unlikely to include such a pricey buy. Some advisers suggest unveiling his choice of running mate before the Games begin to seize attention.
The benefits of such advertising include wide reach, especially among women. (Past TV ratings indicate women are more likely than men to watch the Summer Olympics.) The downside is the high cost and the fact that the campaign will be paying to reach voters in states so overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican that they aren’t in play.
That’s why no previous campaign bought a significant amount of national Olympics time. Doing so underscores the advantages of Obama’s fundraising muscle â€” he raised $52 million last month, more than twice as much as McCain â€” and Obama’s decision not to accept public financing, which limits overall spending. It also reflects his campaign’s determination to reach into states from Alaska to Georgia that Democrats traditionally write off.
“As far as summer viewership and reach and exposure and the fact that not just sports fans watch the Olympics, it’s a very good vehicle for national politics,” says Evan Tracey, CEO of Campaign Media Analysis Group, a media-tracking firm.
He cautions, “I don’t think you can stick your John McCain-is-wrong spot on the Olympics coverage. It has to be in line with the goals of the event, which would mean positive, uplifting, patriotism kind of messages.”
â€¢ Sept. 15 Bringing more troops home
By week’s end, the last of the additional U.S. combat forces deployed to Iraq last year are scheduled to have been withdrawn. That will start a 45-day “pause” U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus requested before considering more reductions of the 140,000 American troops that will remain in the war zone.
So in mid-September, if levels of violence stay relatively low, Petraeus could well recommend that more troops be pulled out â€” perhaps a brigade or two by the end of the year. That could free up forces to be dispatched to the war in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon says they’re needed.
Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution who has taken the administration and its critics to task on Iraq, says he doubts Bush would make a decision whether to pull out more troops for political reasons. He notes the president repeatedly has defied public opinion when it comes to Iraq.
Even so, there would be political repercussions from a move to bring more troops home.
“It would prove McCain right and Obama wrong on the surge,” which McCain supported and Obama opposed, O’Hanlon says.
“But Americans always care more about the future than the past,” he says, and an administration proposal to withdraw more troops would bolster Obama’s argument for a pullout. “It makes it harder to criticize his plan as being strategically imprudent. It allows him to essentially turn the issues back toward domestic policy and the economy.”
And polls show those issues overwhelmingly favor Democrats.
â€¢ Sept. 22 The vote is in the mail
Voters who can’t make it to the polls on Nov. 4 â€” soldiers heading abroad, students away at school, arrestees in jail awaiting trial â€” can begin casting ballots in Virginia on this day. That opens a voting season that now starts long before Election Day in states across the country.
In the 2002 elections, 14% of voters nationwide cast early ballots; in 2004, that number rose to 20%; in 2006, to 25%. This time, “it will certainly be over 30%, and it could be as high as a third,” says Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon.
Early voting has been most prevalent in Western states, but voting changes in Florida and elsewhere after the disputed 2000 presidential election have spread the trend.
Both campaigns have intensive early-voting operations underway, including efforts aimed at reaching the approximately 500,000 active-duty military personnel deployed overseas. The growing number of Americans who vote in the weeks before Election Day has affected the way ads are scheduled and mobilization efforts launched.
“Everybody recognizes that it’s changed the game a little bit in terms of how you do your get-out-the-vote,” says Rogers, the McCain spokesman.
Early voting can make get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day easier because some voters â€” usually the most committed and partisan ones â€” have cast their ballots, enabling campaigns to concentrate on others. It also offers some protection from the repercussions of a last-minute gaffe or disclosure that casts a candidate in a negative light. “You really can’t wait until the last minute anymore” to make an accusation, Gronke says.
â€¢ Sept. 26 Easier to lose than win
When McCain and Obama sit down at the University of Mississippi for the first of three scheduled debates, it will be the first time since such forums began to be televised in 1960 that it won’t include a sitting president or vice president. That raises the stakes, says David Lanoue, a University of Alabama political scientist and co-author of a book about presidential debates.
“Voters try to use debates to gain information about people they don’t know very well,” he says. “To some extent, that applies to John McCain â€” I think there’s still a lot people don’t know about him â€” but the obvious person is Barack Obama.” After a rapid rise from Illinois state legislator to presidential contender, he is “an unknown quantity” for many voters.
Lanoue sees parallels to the 1980 campaign. Voters “wanted a change but they were worried whether Reagan was the right guy.” When the former California governor seemed reassuring during his only debate with President Carter, “the undecideds break and he wins in a landslide.”
The debate at Ole Miss is to focus on domestic policy; the third debate, at Hofstra University on Long Island, is on foreign policy. In between, the debate at Belmont University in Nashville is a town-hall-style meeting, McCain’s preferred format.
Past debates are most remembered for missteps: Richard Nixon visibly sweating in 1960, Al Gore audibly sighing in 2000, President Ford mistakenly declaring Poland free of Soviet control in 1976. “Debates are far more often lost than won,” Lanoue says.
â€¢ Oct. 1 An October surprise?
Campaign strategists spend a lot of time scripting every moment, from making sure McCain is photographed surrounded by voters at his town-hall-style meetings to scheduling Obama’s convention acceptance speech at Denver’s Invesco Field, a dramatic setting that will echo John F. Kennedy’s nomination in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum nearly a half-century ago.
They also spend a lot of time worrying about what they can’t script, particularly the sort of late-breaking development known as an October surprise. “You do think about and preliminarily plan for how the campaign would react to one of those big, top-tier events,” says Devine, the Democratic strategist.
This year, those “top-tier events” would include a terrorist attack, a major U.S. military operation â€” for instance, on Iran â€” or a decisive turn in Iraq or Afghanistan. And there’s always the prospect of some last-minute disclosure about either candidate.
In 2004, the October surprise came from Osama bin Laden, who released a video on Oct. 29. Although it was a reminder that the Bush administration had failed to capture or kill the al-Qaeda leader, it helped Bush by spotlighting the threat of terrorism. “It did have a real impact on the campaign,” Devine says.
â€¢ Oct. 30 Watch your pocketbook
On the Thursday before the election, the Commerce Department issues its advance estimate of third-quarter GDP, a broad measure of the economy’s health. A contracting economy could signal the start of a recession, defined as back-to-back quarters of negative growth.
Defined by economists, anyway. A cascade of distressing news â€” falling home prices, faltering financial institutions and record gas prices â€” already has convinced most Americans that the economy stinks. In the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, 52% called the economy “poor,” the highest number with such a dark view in 16 years.
Last-minute good news could counter some of that gloom while more bad news would reinforce it. Economic anxiety traditionally hurts the party that holds the White House.
During the final full week before the election, the government releases a string of reports on economic fundamentals: new home sales on Monday, consumer confidence on Tuesday, durable goods orders on Wednesday and jobless claims on Thursday.
“We are at a point where people are really hurting in their pocketbooks,” says Sung Won Sohn, an economist who served on the White House Council of Economic Advisers for President Nixon and now teaches at California State University-Channel Islands. “It is the most important driver in the election, and it could tip the boat in either direction.”
Republicans could have “a dream come true” if there were a dramatic drop in the price of oil, he says, which would ease other economic problems.
The chances of that? “I would say virtually none,” Sohn says.
As such, we’ll be continuing to provide news, commentary, and video concerning the election. We’ll also have the full debate videos coming up in August and September.