Tick, tick, tick, tick.
That's the soundtrack political operatives, strategists, candidates and pundits are hearing as the clock winds down to Election Day.
The final six weeks of campaigning will be filled with frenetic activity—three presidential debates between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, ramped up travel schedules for both candidates, and a blitz of ads in key battleground regions of the country.
The Romney campaign in particular is feeling the pressure as it tries to reset the dynamic of the race after a tumultuous few weeks. The team has promised to sharpen its message as well as fully deploy its resources--two areas criticized as falling short thus far.
But will all the activity be for naught? After all, analysts predict that up to 40 percent of voters may be casting their votes early this year. Early and absentee voting is already in progress or about to start in pivotal swing states like Virginia, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
George Mason University government professor Michael McDonald, who studies early voting patterns, said the campaigns don't need to panic quite yet. “There’s no real threat to the campaigns from early voting in the immediate short term because the sorts of voters who are voting right now… are people who have already made up their minds,” McDonald said. “They are hard-core partisans. Any more information you can throw at them is only going to reinforce their decision.”
Most early voters will hold off for a few more weeks. The highest volume will cast their ballots the week before the election, in time for at least the first two presidential debates (on Oct. 3 and Oct. 16) and other campaign maneuvers to make an impression. Still, it’s time for both campaigns to start closing the deal.
“We’ve evolved to the point where every day’s Election Day,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. “It used to be that there was always tomorrow in a campaign--‘We’re down but we’re going to come back tomorrow.’ Well now tomorrow never comes, to quote the Bond movie. Because it’s always Election Day, it takes away some of your hope if you’re down. And it increases the pressure on you, because at very minute, somebody is voting and they’re closing the book on you.”
Starting now, expect to see candidates scheduling appearances around strategic voting deadlines, getting bad news out of the way (see Romney’s tax returns, released Friday afternoon) and sharing information they deem damaging about their opponent.
Craig Robinson, an Iowa GOP operative who runs the conservative web site IowaRepublican.com, says he’s been disheartened to see the Romney team taking a relaxed approach to campaign stops in his swing state, worth six potentially critical electoral votes in a close election. So far, Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan have done a handful of visits to the areas in and around Des Moines, while Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have hit the trail hard, crisscrossing the state. It’s a criticism that’s been echoed in conservative circles by those who would like to see Romney campaign like he means it.
With early voting in Iowa beginning Thursday and the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showing Obama leading Romney by 8 points in the Hawkeye state, the deadline is starting to sink in. “We’re getting to the point where people are saying ... time is running short,” Robinson said. “We’re six weeks away, and we’re there.”