Since Reagan’s 1980 victory, the media have continued to over-emphasize the significance of the general election in presidential races. Rather than reporting on the fundamentals that will ultimately determine election outcomes, the media continue to place a relentless focus on the daily tracking polls—despite the fact that they have proven increasingly inaccurate over the last 20 years. The last presidential race is a good example. In 2012, reporters who followed the ups and downs of the tracking polls concluded that Romney had surged following the first presidential debate. But in reality Obama had already put the election away long before the Republicans had selected their nominee. Obama’s final 51 percent of the vote closely tracked his job approval numbers that remained steady and well within that range during the last year of his first term.
It’s not just history that suggests that the significance of the general election has diminished. There has also been a steady increase in voters casting ballots long before Election Day, with 33 states plus the District of Columbia allowing some form of early voting. Today, every state west of the Mississippi allows early voting. In three of those states—Colorado, Oregon and Washington—all votes are cast by mail before Election Day. In the 2012 election, nationwide 32 percent of all ballots were cast early, with an increasing number of states allowing voting to begin 45 days before Election Day. In these states ballots are being cast prior to the fall presidential debates.
There is every indication that past trends will continue to hold in 2016 and that the outcome of the presidential election will come into focus well before the general election. During this period when voters are beginning to seriously contemplate the type of person they want to lead the country, the Republicans will likely be in the middle of a prolonged and messy internecine intra-party fight—a fight that the unique attributes of the 2016 election will likely make more vocal, extreme and prolonged than the party will wish.