The first Republican presidential debate was almost exactly 13 months ago. The first actual balloting was almost exactly seven months ago. The two presidential tickets have been fixed for about 45 days. And yet custom holds that the official start to the 2016 general election began Monday. A weary country wonders: Hasn't this been going on forever?
And yet since that first debate, mighty Republican oaks have fallen in the political forest, new extremes in campaign rhetoric have been reached, old traditions in campaign comportment have been breached -- and Americans have expended more emotion arguing over this election than perhaps at any other time in our history.
However it turns out, November's election will be a historical turning point, perhaps ending the male domination of the White House that has prevailed for more than two and a quarter centuries, perhaps sweeping into office a businessman-president with no political experience but unmatched personal celebrity and wealth.
As we approach the Labor Day starting line, four important gaps need to be recognized and assessed. These are essential to understanding the American passage this year, and how they play out will be essential in determining who occupies the White House next January. They are:
• The satisfaction gap. This gap is not as yawning as commentators believe. Some 60 percent of Democrats are satisfied that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is their nominee, as compared with the 45 percent of Republicans who feel that way about Manhattan businessman Donald J. Trump, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
Ordinarily such a gap might mean a disaster for the candidate lagging in party satisfaction, and it is possible that that condition will prevail, imperiling the candidacy of Trump. But this political year is different from any other, in part because of the gap that follows:
• The partisanship gap. This political season has seen the most dramatic transformation of partisanship assumptions since 1980, when Ronald Reagan drew legions of Democrats to his GOP candidacy, and perhaps since 1936, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's landslide victory over Republican Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas sealed a vital shift in the American political profile.
The reason: Trump's appeal to blue-collar voters, who have sided with him in astonishing numbers, fracturing the Democrats' long-standing alliance with this voting group. Trump's fortunes depend in large measure on his ability to mobilize these voters and perhaps to expand their numbers without alienating traditional Republicans, 52 percent of whom preferred another candidate and who may still be cool to Trump.
• The geographical gap. Great changes in the geography of American politics are always underway, but seldom as starkly as they are today.
West Virginia provides a dramatic example. Back in 1988, Democratic nominee Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts easily carried the state with 52 percent of the vote. A quarter-century later, in 2012, another Massachusetts governor, this time a Republican, Mitt Romney, carried West Virginia with more than 62 percent of the vote -- a higher percentage than he received in blood-red Alabama or Mississippi.
At play there: the changing fortunes of coal and strong feelings about guns, both of which are to the Republicans' advantage, especially in the wake of Barack Obama's advocacy of gun-control measures and Clinton's comments suggesting coal mining was doomed.
These kinds of transitions are underway within states as well, sometimes to the Democrats' advantage. In Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, Vice President George H.W. Bush easily defeated Dukakis, taking 60 percent of the vote in 1988. Romney, the GOP nominee in 2012, didn't come close. Indeed, Obama took Montgomery County with nearly the same vote (about 57 percent) as Bush won 24 years earlier.
Such long-term changes are in train everywhere, and the unusual profile of Trump adds new wrinkles to the map. He could lose the GOP redoubts of Utah and Idaho (both Republican in every election since 1952 with the exception of the 1964 Barry Goldwater debacle) because of his attacks against Romney, which did not play well in the two states with the largest blocs of Mormons.
"All of a sudden," Dukakis, who now teaches politics at Northeastern University in Boston, said in an interview, "there are a bunch of states that were supposed to be red but might not be so red this time."
One leading indicator of the shifting geography of American politics: This summer, Clinton even campaigned in Nebraska, which voted Republican in 18 of the last 19 elections, the only exception since 1936 being the Goldwater debacle. So forbidding to Democrats is it that, in his first 410 weeks as president, Bill Clinton visited every state but Nebraska, touching down there only 42 days before leaving office.
Moreover, the latest polls in Georgia, which Republicans have carried seven of the last eight elections, show a dead heat. There's also a blistering race in Arizona, Goldwater's home state. It has voted Republican in 15 of the last 16 elections, and Romney carried the state by a comfortable 53-44 percent margin. Clinton is running strong there.
The two candidates are giving unusual attention to New Hampshire, which voted reliably Republican in nine of the 10 elections between 1948 and 1988 (with the 1964 Goldwater exception), but has voted Democratic in four of the last five elections. Trump visited Manchester only two weeks ago, where aides scheduled 23 events across the state -- 10 of them in Dunkin' Donuts stores, the favored meeting place and coffee shop of New England -- for a "Weekend of Action."
That's a lot of effort for four electoral votes, but, then again, had Vice President Al Gore invested that kind of time in the Granite State he would have been the 43rd president and the phrase "hanging chads" would have the obscurity it otherwise richly deserves.
• Authenticity gap. He seems so; she doesn't.
No one doubts that Trump is an authentic character on the stump -- too much so, some Republicans worry -- while Clinton seldom shows the raucous sense of humor and deep humanity that her longtime associates attest she possesses and that others find difficult to believe.
He seems loose; she seems tense. He shuns the briefing books; she devours them. He has no filters; she measures every word. Overall, all of this is a Trump advantage -- until it isn't.