The fundamentals of the race between Sen. Jon Tester (above) and Rep. Denny Rehberg arent likely to change much over the next 15 months. The Montana contest is expected to be one of the closest of the 2012 cycle.
A veteran Democratic consultant once told me something very wise: 90 percent of what happens in a campaign has little to do with determining who wins and who loses. The problem is that we donít know exactly what the important 10 percent is.
I think of this comment often, but particularly during the dog days of the off-year summer, when, apart from candidate recruitment, few things happen that determine who wins and loses Senate races.
I canít speak for others, but I donít ďmoveĒ many races in my ratings during the summer, fall and early winter of the off-year, largely because the general shape of most Senate contests has formed but the details that affect ratings wonít develop until much farther down the road.
Candidates are focused on fundraising, as they will be for many months. Television advertising is nonexistent in most states, as is regular news coverage of contests. Voters arenít hearing much about the races, and they certainly arenít thinking about the candidates or their choices.
Yes, I may ďmoveĒ a race when an unanticipated candidate enters a contest or a surprise retirement is announced. Significant developments can still have an effect on a raceís rating.
But for the most part, those of us who handicap races already have an idea who is running and which contests will be competitive. A couple of races surely not on the radar will pop up before we reach November 2012, but we wonít know which ones for months.
This cycle, the national environment remains a question mark. While conservatives are convinced that the country will turn against President Barack Obama, handing the GOP another victory, Democrats seem equally confident that Republicans will be defined by the tea party and that Rep. Paul Ryanís (R-Wis.) budget plan will help Democrats win.
As a handicapper of House and Senate races, Iíd rather wait and let the cycle develop before prejudging it. I expect that it will be less Democratic than 2006 and 2008 were and less Republican than 2010 was, but otherwise I treat it as essentially neutral at this point in the cycle.
As we end 2011 and begin 2012, the national economic and political landscape of 2012 will come more into focus, and will likely have an effect on individual races.
But for now, there are few reasons to ďmoveĒ most races. Letís take the Montana Senate race as an example.
Both my newsletter and the Cook Political Report rate the Montana Senate race as a tossup. Roll Call Politics also rates the race as a tossup.