In the 2012 presidential campaign, last week was not a particularly good week for Republican Mitt Romney. Even President Obama has encountered a few bumps in the road to re-election.
But fortunately for both candidates, gaffes and foreign events matter little in determining the outcome of an election, in spite of what the news media covering the campaigns might think.
At least that's the conclusion of two political science professors -- Christopher Wlezien of Temple and Robert Erikson of Columbia -- who argue that specific events in a campaign matter much less than we think and certainly much less than it would appear based on the media attention they receive.
Erikson and Wlezien have studied the timelines of every presidential election since 1952 to develop an idea of how voters' preferences take shape over the course of a campaign. What they found goes against conventional wisdom.
They found that over the timeline of a presidential campaign the electorate's collective choice undergoes a slow "evolution." And, Wlezien says, "this evolution is predictable and based on fundamental factors, such as partisan predispositions, economic conditions and candidate attributes."
Early polls, the authors say, rarely predict the election outcome. However, by mid-April after the candidates have been selected, voters start to make up their minds -- and polls during this period in past years have successfully named the winner in 11 of 15 elections.
If that's the case, the 2012 race between Obama and Romney appears it may come down to the wire. Most polls show the race virtually tied or the president with a small lead.
Last six months are key
In their book, The Timeline of Presidential Elections: How Campaigns do (and do not) Matter, Wlezien and Erikson argue that voter evolution begins in the last six months before the election, and it takes place slowly.
Instead of resulting in dramatic change, particular events during this period of a campaign -- including debates -- simply confirm voters' inclinations.
"Voters see things through their preference lenses, typically viewing their favored candidate to be the winner of a debate," Wlezien said. "Given an electorate that is as polarized as it is this year, the impact of the 2012 debates might be particularly hard to find."
The importance of conventions
Again turning conventional wisdom on its ear, the authors suggest the political conventions, which have been markedly de-emphasized in recent years, matter more to voter persuasion than the debates.
"They focus voters' attention on the election and often substantially rearrange their preferences," Wlezien said. "Most importantly, unlike other campaign events, the effects of conventions can last to impact the Election Day outcome."
According to Wlezien and Erikson, voter preferences by now should have hardened.
"History shows that the leader in the polls at the onset of the fall campaign almost certainly will be the victor," Wlezien said.
In the end, Wlezien and Erickson conclude that it's the fundamentals that matter in a presidential election. Even though the election is weeks away, voters may have already made up their minds.