This year’s U.S. presidential race is considered a toss-up by both sides, and unforeseen events could prove determinative: contagion from the European economic crisis, war or terrorism.
The largest imponderable is the economy. With a Republican-controlled House that isn’t eager to help a Democratic president in an election year, even a mild stimulus is a nonstarter.
There are some foreseeable milestones, however, that will also help shape the outcome of the Nov. 6 presidential election.
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• June 28: Give or take a few days, this is when the U.S. Supreme Court hands down its decision on President Obama’s health care law. More than a few Republicans see this as a win-win situation. If the measure is retained, the Republican base will be energized for the general election. If it isn’t, Obama’s signature first-term achievement will be undercut.
Obama strategists are less upbeat and more nuanced. If the law is upheld, they plan to stress its popular elements, a challenge they’ve failed to meet for the past two years. If it’s overturned, there will be a temptation to attack both the court’s decision as driven by ideology and to put Mitt Romney on the spot as to what he would do.
This month, the high court also is expected to rule on Arizona’s anti-immigration law. The politics here may slightly favor the Democrats: If the measure is upheld, the court’s decision will energize Hispanic voters, who are likely to vote overwhelmingly for Obama.
• Aug. 27-30: The Republican National Convention will help set the tone for the general election. Successful conventions, such as 1988 for Republicans and 1992 for Democrats, launched winning candidates. Conversely, messy conventions – the Democrats’ in 1980 or the Republicans’ in 1992 – proved impossible to overcome.
In Tampa this year, the Republicans will bash Obama as a failed president who is in over his head. They’ll also try to shed their image as a narrow club of rich guys by highlighting more diversity than commonly seen at Republican gatherings.
• Sept. 4-6: The Democrats are holding an abbreviated convention in Charlotte. The tenor of these three days is no secret. The first two will feature Romney-bashing: his private-equity past, his Massachusetts record, how he will return the U.S. to the George W. Bush days, etc. Then the president will try to offer an economic vision that so far has eluded this campaign.
• Oct. 3: The first of four national debates is held. A review of the 10 presidential cycles that featured debates suggests these have minimal impact on the final outcome; exceptions were the initial John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon debates in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Nevertheless, there will be lots of hype, and this affords each candidate a chance to hold his opponent accountable: Romney will be able to call on Obama to explain the poor performance of the economy over the previous four years; Obama can highlight his opponent’s many policy reversals and support for some hard-right positions.
• Nov. 2: The unemployment data for October is released. Voters’ sense of economic security will be well-formed by the eve of the election. Yet with dueling messages – Obama claiming the economy is improving and Romney saying it isn’t – a highly publicized jobs report four days before the election could be psychologically important.