As we hold our collective breath awaiting the result of today’s vote, our minds naturally turn to the events that defined this campaign. The Obama team’s summer ad blitz defining Mitt Romney as a heartless uber-capitalist. Obama’s disastrous first debate performance. Superstorm Sandy.
Another way to think about the past year or so is to consider all the potentially pivotal events that didn’t ever happen. The dogs that never barked, as it were. The game-changers that never made it onto the playing field. Here are five:
Third Party, Pooped
Back in early summer, with Republicans and Democrats alike grumbling about their nominees, the window appeared at least ajar for a third-party candidacy. The well-funded Americans Elect was winning ballot access around the country, and chatterers buzzed that a moderate like Michael Bloomberg or Jon Huntsman might join the race as an independent. The potential effect on the race was hard to predict, but the prospect made the Obama camp nervous enough to go negative on Americans Elect. That group’s efforts fizzled, earning perhaps the weakest bang for the buck in American politics since the 2008 Giuliani campaign. It is still possible, however, that the Quixotic third party candidates Virgil Goode and Gary Johnson could draw enough votes to tip a swing state like Virginia or Ohio.
In June, Barack Obama himself warned that the European financial crisis posed a threat to his re-election. A worst-case scenario involving a Greek exit from the Euro and collapse of the continent’s shared currency could have sent the Dow Jones tumbling and even tipped the U.S. back into recession. Details are scant about the Obama team’s behind-the-scenes negotiations with European leaders to hold the Eurozone together, but they might turn out to have been more important to his re-election than any speech or campaign ad.
The deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi became a rallying cry for Republicans this fall, but never moved large numbers of voters. Eventually, Mitt Romney dropped the subject entirely. More significant, 2012 passed without a real terrorism scare inside the United States. That was hardly a given. In 2009, a Nigerian man nearly bombed a passenger jet on Christmas Day, and the next year saw the disruption of two potentially deadly attacks on Manhattan and an intercepted bomb sent via FedEx from Yemen to Chicago. An attack during the campaign seemed totally possible, but the results unpredictable: A pro-Obama rally-round-the-flag effect? A collapse in Obama’s national security credentials? Thankfully for the country, it never came to that.
Losing Mitt’s Religion
Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential run was so dogged by questions about his Mormon faith that Romney gave a grand address on the subject. The GOP nominee did endure occasional anti-Mormon outbursts during the 2012 primaries. But during the general election, his faith rarely came up, except as the butt of occasional mild jokes, and there was little sign that voters cared about it. Yes, in the campaign’s closing days, some liberals circulated a 2007 video of Romney parrying a radio host’s aggressive questions about his religion. But Romney’s faith was ultimately a non-issue.
When Romney tapped Paul Ryan to be his running mate, Democrats gleefully declared the move an act of political suicide. Some of this was posturing. But some of it was based on a sincere belief that Ryan’s budget—and especially its controversial overhaul of Medicare—would prove to be an anchor around Romney’s neck. (This correspondent may even have written a story based in part on this theory.) Ryan and Romney punched back hard, however, accusing Obama of making his own cuts to Medicare in his health care bill (Obamacare did cut $716 billion from the program, though mostly in payments to providers, not beneficiaries). The ticket also clearly explained that their plan wouldn’t affect anyone over 55 and would continue the existing Medicare program as an option for younger Americans. If Romney winds up losing Florida because he underperformed with senior citizens, Republicans will second-guess his Ryan pick. It’s hard to argue it was the act of political suicide that many liberals predicted, however.