Presidential re-election campaigns are always about the incumbent - serving as a referendum of that president's performance in office and the results of their policies. It's a choice election. It's not about the challenger. What the incumbent tries to do is to make the other "choice" unacceptable, resulting in the incumbent's reelection.
I suspect the 2012 campaign will be waged on only two issues: the economy and a referendum on Obama-care. Consider that, as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has already predicted, the Supreme Court will likely announce their decision on the constitutionality of Barack Obama's sweeping health care law on the last Monday in June next year. Such a time frame will likely be after the GOP nominee has been chosen but before the national party conventions, during the summer when the presidential general election campaign is not yet being waged ferociously.
No matter what decision is rendered, Obama-care is guaranteed to burn white hot as an issue on the campaign trail in 2012.
Only after the 2012 election, if Obama does win a second term as president, we will we know for sure if he was successful tactically.
However, his ultimate success or failure can be foretold by four discrete statistics - and the first two directly impact the second two.
By Labor Day of 2012, President Obama will have to play the cards he has dealt on the national unemployment rate and on the price of a gallon of gas.
Both subjects present tangible, simple numbers that have a direct impact on Americans personally and psychologically. Labor Day is the time frame when, after summer vacations are over and children return to school, parents (likely voters) begin paying greater attention to the candidates. That's when opinions firm up, information takes hold, and impressions become difficult to change.
If, as is not just possible, but even likely, Obama is dealt a hand that has unemployment over 8 percent and the price of gasoline at $3 a gallon, Americans are likely to view their own economic future pessimistically and give the other candidate, if acceptable to the broad middle, a chance to run the country.
No incumbent president since FDR has won re-election with unemployment over 7.2 percent and today unemployment is 9.2 percent, as today's dismal jobs report indicated. Gas prices were $1.68 when Obama took over, and today the national average is $3.67, more than double.
While some statistics lie, these don't.
Those two statistics will directly impact the so-called "right track, wrong track" number, which indicates what Americans believe about the direction the country is headed. Economic opportunity is political destiny. If unemployment and gas prices are high, the wrong track number will be the majority view, as it is today. A recent poll released by the non-profit Let Freedom Ring, for whom, in full disclosure, I have consulted, pegged the wrong track number at 60 percent in a 1,000 personal national survey in mid-June.
Add up gas prices, national unemployment, and the wrong track number and blend them together - you will get the re-elect number. If an incumbent, whether running for state representative, Congress or president is under 50 percent for re-election, the overwhelming majority of the time they lose.
Incumbents don't win undecided voters at the end because the voters already know them and have made up their mind. A known candidate they don't yet support is less appealing than an unknown candidate they just might like better.
Currently, President Obama is an even shot for re-election. But I suspect we will know by Labor Day 2012 where this is headed. While some politicians might lie, the numbers and history, don't.
• Matt Mackowiak is a Republican consultant and president of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC. He can be reached at email@example.com