“There’s a pretty broad recognition that you can’t wait,” said Mark McKinnon, who oversaw the media in President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns. “Certainly significant events may happen to reshape the race, but the fundamentals set in pretty early. You’ve got to use all the resources you have to blitz on every play and get every advantage you can as early as you can.”
What used to be seen as a transitional period between the nomination season and the general election has disappeared, leaving little margin for error, particularly for the challenger and his team who are coming off a long primary fight that has left them exhausted and the campaign’s resources depleted.
“There’s no such thing as a fall campaign anymore,” said Steve Schmidt, who was the chief strategist for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 general election campaign. “Once the nomination is sewn up, a presidential campaign is a continuous enterprise. The fall campaign is fundamentally about executing on the platform you build over the spring and summer. Wasted time is hard to make up.”
The past week was emblematic of the pace and demands of today’s general election campaigns. Romney’s last major opponent, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, suspended his campaign last Tuesday, but there was no time for celebration or relaxation in Romney’s Boston headquarters.
In the days since, Romney’s team has engaged in a heated exchange over working mothers. The candidate delivered the first of what are likely to be several speeches aimed at drawing contrasts with the president. Obama’s campaign moved aggressively to try to keep Romney on the defensive, while running as quickly as it could away from Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen’s sharply worded criticism of Romney’s wife, Ann, as a woman who had never worked “a day in her life.”
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.