Saturday, June 23, 2012

When Does the General Election Really Begin?

For several weeks now, Mitt Romney has held enough delegates to ensure that he will be the Republican Party's presidential nominee. The Democratic Party, of course, has had its own nominee's name set in stone for much longer. There's no doubt that the 2012 race has shifted from the primary season to the general election season. So why does it seem like nothing is happening?

A year ago, the Republican primary season was experiencing its own lazy summer phase. For the past few elections, candidates have made efforts to extend the calendar, seeking an edge on their rivals. Like participants in an arms race, they attempted to raise and spend more money earlier and earlier in advance of voting day. This was particularly true in the parties' primaries. Twenty-four hour cable news networks with lots of time to fill also had a stake in extending the campaign seasons, and they scheduled as many televised debates as the candidates would allow. But the truth is that only the voters themselves decide how long the campaigns really last, because campaigns don't truly begin until the voters are paying attention. If voters aren't watching, then spending money on TV ads and campaign events is a waste.

The rule of thumb is that in a general election, voters begin paying attention in early September, about two months prior to election day. Interest ramps up in October, when the debates take place. By the end of October, the whole world is watching the election.

There's only one thing that forces the voters to pay attention earlier: The party conventions. At the conventions, the parties' nominees give their first big speeches of the campaign. The non-incumbent candidates can make additional headlines when they choose their vice presidential nominees. This is usually done shortly before the party convention.

But the political parties both recognize that although the conventions could be used to grab voters' attention earlier in the season, it's best to schedule them as late as possible. By holding the conventions later, they maximize the number of people inclined to pay attention. Candidates usually get a bounce in the polls from their conventions, and there's a perception that "he who bounces last bounces best." In 2008, the Republican Party held its convention beginning September 1st, the latest a convention had ever been scheduled.

The backloading of the party conventions shortens the active campaign season. In 2012, it's the Democrats' turn to hold their convention last, beginning on September 3rd. The Republican convention won't be held much earlier--it's scheduled for the week of August 27th. That sets the stage for a long summer during which voters will likely remain asleep, so not much can happen.

Romney has the option of selecting his VP well in advance of the convention. In 2004, for instance, John Kerry announced John Edwards as his VP nearly three weeks before the convention. By contrast, Sarah Palin was announced only a few days before John McCain's convention in 2008. There's a perception that choosing the VP earlier could be beneficial, because the VP can hold campaign events, make media appearances, and raise money. If the VP is truly beneficial to the ticket, it's never to early to begin helping. On the other hand, the earlier the VP is chosen, the less time the candidate has to make the choice--and vet the potential VP.

Most likely, Romney will not announce his VP choice until the beginning of August. He could wait, as McCain and others have done, until just prior to the convention. But given how early the Romney campaign began the selection process, it seems they will probably make the announcement on a schedule similar to the one used by Kerry in 2004. That would suggest an announcement around August 6th, three weeks prior to the convention.

Could they do it even earlier? Yes, if they are comfortable with their VP choice. If the rumors about Tim Pawlenty being chosen for vice president are true, he will have been fully vetted and ready to launch in July. But vetting isn't the only consideration: Romney's campaign will also need to consider how the Republican Party will react to the choice. If news of the possibility of Pawlenty on the ticket was met with an underwhelming response, Romney's campaign is second-guessing itself and exploring alternatives. In that case, an early August announcement remains likely.