The play-offs are over. Now, it's the Super Bowl of Politics!
With the primary season fading from memory, the first skirmishes of the general election are just beginning. This is a period of testing messages, so one must be careful not to read too much into each side's volleys at this stage of the race. As with all campaigns, success requires the delicate balance of energizing the base to activate donors and volunteers while appealing to the middle, who ultimately will decide the electoral outcome.
President Obama's recent decision to support gay marriage and Republican candidate Mitt Romney's reaffirmation of his opposition to it will amplify base activation on both sides but will not likely be decisive in this election. Attacks on Romney for being Mormon or on Obama's Jeremiah Wright connections will be distractions that will have little if any impact on the outcome of the race.
On alternate days, we hear that Obama is way ahead in fundraising and that corporate interests and Super PACs will overwhelm candidate spending. Yes, significant dollars will be spent and, in the end, one side will be found to have outspent the other, but it is hard to make a case now as to which side that will be.
The campaigns will try to paint the other as extreme. Each side will have particular issues on which they focus. Which messages will be meaningful largely depends on the course of events outside the control of either party.
Obama will attack Romney as
1) a defender of millionaires, unsympathetic to middle-class struggles;
2) intolerant of immigrants; and
3) dangerous for the environment.
Romney will attack Obama on
1) the continued anemic economy with persistent high unemployment,
2) Obamacare, and
3) energy policy and high gas prices with heavy doses of references to solar-panel maker Solyndra and the Keystone pipeline.
There is reason for optimism on both sides.
Supporters of Obama's reelection can look to
1) the fact that most presidents get reelected to a second term given the built-in visibility and agenda-setting advantages of being the president,
2) Romney's lack of magnetism, and
3) the stabilization of the economy.
Supporters of Romney can take comfort from the knowledge that
1) reelections are about the incumbent, so Romney's general lack of charisma will not matter;
2) only 28 percent of U.S. voters think the country is heading in the right direction, which is historically highly toxic for an incumbent; and
3) either a bad economy or high gas prices could be Obama's Achilles' heel.
There is still a lot of time between now and the election. Events could clearly be decisive. Key events could be
1) an economic meltdown in Europe negatively impacting the economy;
2) Supreme Court rulings on either the president's health care plan or Arizona's immigration law;
3) a foreign policy crisis in Afghanistan, Iran, or elsewhere; or
4) an unforeseen event.
Negative economic surprises likely would negatively impact Obama's prospects, while a foreign policy surprise could be an electoral benefit to Obama given America's rally-around-the-flag instinct.
At this point in the presidential race, I rate it a jump ball -- that is, it's too close to call.
In the U.S. House, although some of the Republican freshman will find that the electorate does not appreciate their highly contentious approach, it appears likely that Republicans will retain the majority, though conditions can change.
In the U.S. Senate, the number of seats the Democrats must defend makes a Republican takeover highly possible. The current status of races in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, and Wisconsin give Republicans optimism that they can win the four seats they need to regain control. Many Americans are uncomfortable with giving either party complete control in Washington. As such, if the tide leans toward either presidential candidate, this will help the other party in congressional racers.
This campaign season promises to be like a Super Bowl game where the lead keeps changing. For those -- like me -- who have a point of view that they care passionately about, it is game time. The outcome matters! Time to suit up.
Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).