As Election Day nears and the presidential campaigns move from news-making mode into get-out-the-vote mode, it's become clear what were the 'game-changing' events of the consistently razor-close race. Here's a rundown of the top things that changed the race's trajectory and those that were expected to but didn't.
Mitt Romney's nomination
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lost his 2008 Republican presidential primary bid to John McCain in a battle of two moderates. Though he was a heavy favorite in 2012, it took awhile for Romney to put away his true-blood conservative challengers. But Republicans are lucky to have him as their standard-bearer, though, as he topped the field when it came to the candidate most likely to beat President Barack Obama. Had Romney lost the mantle to Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, this would be a very different race.
Obama campaign defines Romney before Romney can
As soon as Romney wrapped up the nomination, the Obama campaign wasted no time in launching a battery of television advertisements in battleground states painting him to the American public largely learning about him for the first time as an out-of-touch millionaire who made his profits on the backs of laid-off workers. The Romney campaign chose not to battle back with their own positive ads and allowed Obama to elbow his way to polling leads in many of the swing states.
Romney's opposition to the auto industry bailout
Largely considered the most crucial swing state for the Romney campaign, Ohio has been consistently in Obama's column, according to most polling, in large part because of Romney's vocal opposition to government intervention when the auto industry was flailing. His New York Times op-ed titled, 'Let Detroit Go Bankrupt' was a bold move aimed at winning over conservatives and it's been hard for him to convince voters in northern Ohio where auto manufacturing jobs are prevalent that he's the better economic choice. No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio.
When a tape of remarks Romney made during a high-dollar private fund-raiser were made public, the campaign was already on its heels – but the made-for-attack ad clips took things from bad to worse. Romney's dismissive attitude toward the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income tax rubbed many of those potential supporters the wrong way, harming his status with working-class voters by labeling them moochers.
Without a doubt, Romney was able to stem a month's worth of bad news by a stunning performance in the first presidential debate. He bowled a doe-eyed Obama over with his ebullience, sharp focus, and moderated positions on tax and spending issues. Obama was able to hold his own, and even win, the final two face-offs, but the damage was done. Romney now polling the strongest he has at any point in the race – just two weeks away from Election Day.
Prolonged GOP primary
The first piece of conventional wisdom heading into the general election was that the extended period of time it took for Romney to sew up his nomination would harm him on Election Day, as it proved the GOP would have trouble rallying around their standard-bearer. Turns out, not so much. The Republicans quickly coalesced around their champion, preferring to unify against Obama rather than fight a civil war.
Mitt's tax returns
Democrats have pounded Romney for declining to release more than two years worth of tax returns and pilloried him for the contents of those that he did reveal. But as the race headed out of the summer and into the more focused fall, the issue fell away as the race turned to the economy, tax policy, and foreign affairs.
The Supreme Court's most anticipated ruling ever was poised to be a game-changing event in the presidential race. If the conservative court overturned the president's signature (and unpopular) domestic policy, it was expected to deflate and demoralize his supporters. But when the high court upheld key elements of the law, including the controversial 'individual mandate' portion, the decision's potency seemed to evaporate.
Paul Ryan – Medicare
For decades, social security and Medicare reforms have been the third rail of American politics.Romney's selection of budget hawk Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan was supposed to be a boon to Democrats because of his proposal to turn the sacred cow Medicare program into a voucher system.. But rather than sending seniors running, the Romney-Ryan ticket actually leads Obama among voters in the key demographic.
The story of this election cycle was that changes in public finance rules would flood the race with unlimited spending by outside (non-campaign linked) spending groups, which would largely favor Republicans. While 'super PACs' have had a significant impact on congressional races, as well as the GOP presidential primary, they have not had the same effect in the general election. While the pro-Romney super PACs have raised more than pro-Obama ones overall, the most recent reports show the Democratic groups topping their Republican counterparts.
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at email@example.com.