Expect the pace to pick up in the presidential campaign between now and Election Day, experts say, especially in this era of social media driving interest.
Sunday marked 100 days until Americans choose between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, a final sprint in a busy election season that will include the candidates’ speeches at the GOP and Democratic conventions.
It is "game time," said Steve Schmidt, senior adviser to U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during his 2008 presidential campaign against Obama. "A big part of what happens to put one of these guys over the top happens in the next 100 days."
The Obama campaign planned voter registration and volunteer recruitment events on Sunday.
"It’s a signal we’re turning the corner," David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, told USA Today, calling it a "psychological milestone."
To engage voters, the campaigns will step up television advertising before "the political theater of the presidential debates" in October, said Catherine Wilson, associate professor of political science at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia.
Some voters have paid attention to the race since it began a year ago in Iowa with the Ames straw poll — "if for no other reason than it has been a constant matter of discussion" in the news, Wilson said.
The race hasn’t appeared to take a summer break. This month, an estimated $100 million worth of political ads aired in swing states.
Labor Day traditionally marks the start of voters’ attention to election matters intensifying, but "we have seen that benchmark move closer to the end of July," said Steve McMahon, a founding partner of the Washington-based consulting firm Purple Strategies.
"Weekend events like the Obama campaign’s ‘Barbecues for Barack’ aren’t just fun events for the party faithful," Schmidt said. "It is a way for the campaign to test the intensity of the bases, giving them time to adjust if they are behind in areas of support where they need to be ahead."
Many voters are waiting for Romney to announce his choice of a running mate, likely to happen the weekend before the Aug. 27-30 convention in Tampa. Targeted political messaging will emerge from the Republican gathering and the Democratic Party’s convention Sept. 3-6 in Charlotte.
Expect negative ads to continue as each man attempts to define his opponent as unacceptable to lead on the issue driving this race: the nation’s economy.
From the start, the economy has shaped this election, Wilson said, adding that the July unemployment numbers "will do much to set the political narrative for both candidates going forward" when the Labor Department releases them on Friday.
There are single-issue voters up for grabs — people concerned about such things as religious freedom, gun control, gay marriage and the health care law — but the health of the nation’s economy overshadows all, Wilson and other strategists said.
The campaigns will attempt to massage candidates’ gaffes and take political advantage on issues that emerge — as happened with the question of gun control after the shootings of 70 people in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence urged the White House hopefuls to talk about specific solutions to gun violence, and Obama last week agreed that tougher background checks should exist for Americans trying to buy guns.
Yet despite that and other emotional issues for some voters, most people are concerned about the state of the economy, said McMahon.
Purple Strategies in February began polling likely voters in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
When the bipartisan company’s polling started, 36 percent of respondents thought the economy was "getting better" and 37 percent said it was "getting worse," McMahon said.
"Today those numbers are 28 percent ‘getting better’ and 42 percent ‘getting worse." That is a net change of 13 points," he said.
Schmidt believes early voting has helped extend the election season.
"The notion that Election Day is just one day is a misnomer," he said. "Because of early voting and no-excuse-needed absentee balloting, more and more votes are cast even before Labor Day."
In part, that’s why the campaigns are advertising heavily now, he said.
"That solidifies your base. You get them out to vote early, so you can go for the independent vote in the final weeks."
Said Wilson: "Presidential elections hinge on the struggle for the independent voter, especially at the later stages of the election cycle. The real fight takes place … in the messy middle, where candidates are expected to make more centrist appeals."
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter