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The 2012 Presidential Election

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Five key factors to understanding the race / By Matthew Dowd

As Election Day 2012 approaches in one of the tightest presidential contests in history, every vote really may count toward determining who sits in the White House for the next four years. It is important to step back and examine the key factors that are likely to be decisive. The polling in this election for president has been within the margin of error for months, and nothing seems to have shaken that from this election being a photo finish. No prediction here as to who will win in this hard-fought battle, but there are five key factors to keep in mind in understanding the campaigns, why certain decisions have been made and why the public seems to be evenly split in this race.

Political environment

Though many analysts have a tendency to focus on the tactics, whether it be on speeches, television ads or candidate visits, the emotional and political environment of the country matters more than anything else. Whether the republican wins in a given year or the democratic candidates win depends mostly on the underlying feelings and attitudes of citizens throughout the country. In 2008, the country was tired of two wars, the economy was struggling and voters wanted a big change from President Bush, and so it was nearly inevitable that President Obama would win the general election. It really became a question of how much he would win by, not if he would win. Looking further back, in 1984, the country’s economy was recovering in a very big way and people believed the country was headed in the right direction. Therefore, President Reagan ran away with a victory, and Walter Mondale didn’t stand a chance, no matter how well his campaign worked. Today, the signals are mixed, but because a majority of the country believes we are off on the wrong track, it creates vulnerability for President Obama and a big opportunity for Mitt Romney. While the country’s economy has improved a bit since the president took office, it has not improved enough to make voters confident about the future. Slight advantage, Romney.

Message

If you gave me a choice between a campaign with good mechanics versus one with a good message, I would take the good-message campaign every day of the week. When we look at what entails a good message in a campaign battle, it is really not about issues; it is about values. When I say values, I don’t mean moral values but broad values like understanding, caring, strong leadership, etc. Issue stands and discussions for presidential candidates are really indicators for the broader values the public wants a leader to show. The best message has the opposite side of the same coin, so that what you say about yourself has its opposite component with what you say about your opponent. In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton’s campaign used the economy to underscore he cared about voters, and he criticized President Bush for being out of touch. This year, the two campaigns don’t have as efficient and effective messages that are consistent and powerful. Advantage, neither.

Personality

Because the choice for president is one of the most personal decisions a voter will make in their political life, the personality of the candidate is an important indicator of the values that voters want in a president. Because the president will be a regular guest coming in to their living room for four years, how much the candidate connects and is likeable is important. However, voters can still fire a president they like if they don’t feel he is getting the job done, just like many of us have had to do in our professional careers. Slight advantage, Obama.

Moments

More important than manufactured events and rallies are moments that occur in the course of a presidential campaign. How best campaigns and candidates do in these moments when voters’ attention is centered in a genuine way is crucial. Things like debates and convention speeches have a heightened importance in tight elections, as well as spontaneous events voters look to leaders to deal with or respond to. Advantage, unknown.

Tactics

It is the tactics in a campaign that most efficiently deliver the message in the most creative and effective way. The use of the latest technology is key to having an advantage against your opponent in this area. The Obama campaign used tactics incredibly well in 2008. Slight advantage, Obama. If you can tune out all the noise you will hear on the airwaves and the pundit speak back and forth on the Internet, radio and television shows, and pay attention to the frequency surrounding these five factors, it will give you a very good signal on this election and elections in the future. For the presidential race, the big prize in the 2012 election remains too close to call.

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