The Washington Post:
Labor Day was once seen as the official kickoff to the general election, a characterization that seems quaint in this era of round-the-clock politics and hyper communications. In fact, early September may be the moment that signals to the country which candidate is likely to win.
It is overwhelmingly the case that the candidate who has led just after Labor Day has gone on to win the election. The fact that the conventions are now held around Labor Day, rather than much earlier, means that the first polls taken after the post-convention bounces have dissipated will be key indicators as to how the race will go.
Among the exceptions: Ronald Reagan trailed Jimmy Carter in a mid-September 1980 Gallup poll and went on to win an electoral landslide. Al Gore led George W. Bush narrowly in an early September 2000 Gallup survey. He won the popular vote but not the presidency. But in virtually every other case dating to 1952, the leader in the Gallup Poll around Labor Day went on to win.
Four years ago, McCain led Obama briefly in mid-September, but that was more a reflection of the boost he got from his convention. But those polls were an anomaly in a campaign in which Obama always appeared in control. Through much of July and August that year, McCain’s campaign team feared that the election was already lost.
(...) All general election campaigns include signature moments that long have been seen as helping to shape the outcome. For both Obama and Romney, the speeches they deliver at their respective national conventions will give them a chance to define the choices before huge national audiences. The presidential debates will offer the public a last look at the two nominees side by side, though they have only occasionally been seen as the decisive moments of the campaigns.
Romney will help define himself further with the choice of a vice presidential running mate. The way he manages that process and his choice of a running mate will affect public perceptions of him as a possible president. Obama will command the stage in his official duties, often a decided advantage in a reelection contest.
Most of those events will come in the second half of a campaign that will go on for almost seven months. But long before they take place, the skill and aggressiveness of the two candidates will help to lock perceptions of voters into place.
Outside events also will play a role in this early phase of the campaign. The Supreme Court is expected to rule sometime in June on the constitutionality of Obama’s health care law. Wisconsin voters will decide early that month whether to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Overseas, tensions with Iran could boil over into an international crisis.
Campaigns can’t control those outside events, but they already are doing what they can to affect the race. Obama appears to be taking a page from Bush’s 2004 playbook by moving as quickly as possible to define Romney negatively.
“We made a decision that we needed to and wanted to frame the election on our terms and to do it as early as possible and as forcefully as possible,” McKinnon said of Bush’s 2004 campaign. “Their nominee was physically exhausted and depleted in resources and that was a perfect time to strike.”
Tad Devine, who was a top strategist for Democratic candidate John Kerry, said those early days were a huge mismatch between a Bush campaign that had, by his recollection, $100 million in the bank and a Kerry operation that ended the primaries with only about $2 million in cash on hand.
(...) Obama’s campaign, like Bush’s in 2004, has had months to prepare for a general election contest against Romney. Obama advisers assumed from the start of the campaign a year ago that Romney would be their likely opponent and have been attacking him for months, though not with much paid advertising. That is expected soon.
Obama’s campaign also has stockpiled its cash for this moment. That puts Romney, who needs to replenish his bank account, at an obvious disadvantage at the start of the general election. But he has one asset that Kerry could not count on eight years ago, which is the existence of super PACs that can help to provide cover for the Republican candidate as his campaign seeks to replenish its bank account and expand its fundraising capacity for the general election.
Romney also has to do two things at the same time: unite a party whose conservatives still regard him with some suspicion and move to the middle to make up ground lost during the primaries. His deficit among women is particularly large. The speed with which his campaign began to address that problem since Santorum dropped out showed not only that his team sees it as a problem but also that the campaign is prepared to act immediately to try to correct it.
All of that explains the sense of urgency in Boston and Chicago. “The loser of this period can still go on to win the election,” Devine said. “But the loser of this period is more likely to lose the election.”