Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, and Politics

If you were an alien listening to political pundits for information about the human race, you would probably think the entire American population is in a state of deep cryo-genic sleep until Labor Day. Only on this magical first Monday in September will the masses arise from their slumber and attune themselves to the world at large, namely the presidential election that may very well alter the course of history.

Yeah, I don’t buy it either.

Throughout the ups and downs (and stagnation) of this presidential cycle, commentators from both parties always agreed that the American people really didn’t care about any of it (at least when their party was on the losing side of a poll). The trivial attacks, the gaffes, the tax return scandal, the jobs reports: Nothing jolts Americans away from their barbecues and swimming pools.

But Peggy Noonan wrote two weeks ago that this election is in fact different, and I’m inclined to agree with her. While I do not represent the average voter (most people have better things to do than obsessively check Politico), there is something different this time around.

People care more about the economy. They want to make sure their jobs are secure and their families are in good hands.

People are more divided politically than ever. They are eager to find failings with the other party and its candidate no matter what time of year.

And, if nothing else, people can’t get away from it if they tried.

Everyone and their mothers have an opinion about Facebook, but the truth is, social media, internet media, and well, media media are everywhere. Each candidate is mentioned hundreds of thousands of times on Twitter every week. Their thousand watt smiles shine from the sidebars of your favorite website. And “trending articles” on Facebook bring the campaign to basically every college kid’s computer screen. Plus there are always the old faithful negative television spots and political talk show hosts.

The proof is in the pudding. If campaigns believed that people didn’t start paying attention until after Labor Day, then why have they spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads until they can’t buy any more T.V. time? Why do they care so much about campaigning if we allegedly do not. The qualifier behind every gaffe and bad poll is not legitimate. People do care now for a lot of reasons, but mostly because every media outlet, billboard, website, bus stop, and Medicare beneficiary does.

Having said this, the Obama camp should not be worried. It has done unbelievably well defining Mitt Romney on its terms. Most voters still have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican candidate. At the same time, the Obama campaign has been able to keep the focus on Mitt Romney’s personal finances rather than the economy. The strategy is currently paying dividends, no doubt playing a role in Romney’s V.P. pick and shifting the debate to entitlement reform, typically a strong suit for Democrats.

That mentality, however, is the underlying problem with most strategists. Besides the “Labor Day” myth, Republican analysts constantly reiterate no modern president has won a reelection bid with unemployment over 8 percent, and Democrats point to Mitt Romney’s historically low favorability ratings as why he will not be president. Precedent will not explain this election. We can learn some things from past elections, but using “convention” or “precedent” as a crutch is not accurate, nor does it boost the credibility of the pundit. There’s nothing impressive about reciting a well-known pattern and then claiming to predict the future with certainty.

It’s almost Labor Day. Things are really going to start to “matter” now. I’m just glad Obama thought they mattered three months ago also.