All U.S. presidential elections "are unique in some fashion," says John G. Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.
Sure, but what about 2012? What exactly will make the 2012 election between President Obama and Mitt Romney truly unique?
And there are other — what shall we call them? — uniquities.
Carol S. Weissert, director of the LeRoy Collins Institute — a nonpartisan public policy think tank in Tallahassee, Fla. — points out that the presidential election in November will be the first since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court opinion that opened the barn door to unregulated spending in all political campaigns — but especially presidential campaigns.
"We're seeing some glimpses of what unregulated spending is doing in the Wisconsin recall," Weissert says, "but we haven't seen anything yet."
And, she says, it'll be the first election during a time when our country's economic well-being is linked in large part with Europe's economy. "If the eurozone collapses — or maybe when," Weissert says, "this will shake the core of our economy and affect the presidential election. And there is little we can do about it but watch."
The 2012 election, says Caroline Tolbert, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, will be sui generis in several ways. Never before has this country seen an African-American incumbent president run for re-election, she says. And never before has there been a major party nominee who was a Mormon.
Tolbert also cites the president's mad skills at digital campaigning and politics. "Obama has 26 million likes on Facebook," she says, "compared to less than 2 million for Romney."
For David Schultz, a public policy professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., the approaching election "is about an America that is divided by a partisan politics of nostalgia versus a politics of tomorrow."
Schultz, who also teaches election law at the University of Minnesota's law school, says the country is at a critical crossroads. One path will determine how America responds to its global role and ranking in a hyperdynamic world.
"The second path America is crossing is demographics," Schultz says. "We are witnesses to a country where one generation of citizens — the baby boomers — are waning in influence and are being replaced by a new generation sharing a different agenda than those who came of age during the 1960s. This election is about the end of the 1960s as a defining moment in American politics. The other demographic change is racial. We are seeing a growth in the strength of people of color, as their numbers increase and the white majority recedes to a white plurality."
The third path, Schultz says, leads to a war over wealth that this country has not seen in a century.
"America is economically more unequal today than it has been since the 1920s," Schultz says, "with multiple statistics and studies demonstrating that the gap between rich and poor has exploded in the last three decades. Occupy Wall Street has highlighted this battle of wealth versus the people, portending a possibility that this election is about whether American democracy is for real or for sale."
Those scenarios — America's place in the world, shifting demographics and the battle between dollars and democracy — are setting up two contrasting political narratives, Schultz says. One narrative leads toward a nostalgic past; the other toward a fast-changing future. "This election," Schultz says, "is about which of the narratives will win."
Vanderbilt's Geer frames it another way. The 2012 election, he says, "strikes me as very much a product of long-standing forces. In this case: the condition of the economy and which candidate we most trust to lead America for the next four years."