Depending on whom you believe, this year's presidential election is the "most important" vote:
a) in our lifetime.
b) in a century.
c) in the history of the universe.
d) since the presidential race of 2000, which was the "most important election" since 1996, which stole the "most important" crown from 1992, and so on.
It's a campaign tradition dating to the 1800s. But it's gotten out of hand in recent years. In 1984, President Reagan called the race against Democrat Walter Mondale "the most important choice in modern times." And so it remained until the next election in 1988, when George Bush declared his bid to prevent Michael Dukakis from occupying the White House "the most important choice in a generation."
Of course, that was nothing compared with 1992, when vice presidential hopeful Al Gore told crowds that the Nov. 3 election could be the most important ever. Not surprisingly, 1992 was eventually upstaged by 1996 and 2000.
If presidential elections get any more "important," life as we know it might cease to exist.
"Every election, we always say this is the most important election ever. But this year we really mean it," a Sierra Club spokesman told USA Today four years ago, when George W. Bush and Al Gore squared off.
So, how does the Sierra Club feel about the 2004 contest? This time, they super-duper really mean it. "The problem with crying wolf is sometimes there really is a wolf," says Executive Director Carl Pope. "This time, there's a wolf."
Not every observer gets so carried away. While many pundits called the 2000 election the most crucial vote in recorded history, others were more circumspect. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay said at the time that it was only the most important election "since the Civil War." And NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre said it was merely the most important "in the history of firearms ownership."
The goal of all this rhetoric is "to mobilize voters," says Ann Crigler, a political science professor at USC. It's unclear when the trend began. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon both used the "most important election" concept in 1960. And, in 1856, Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas said the nation was facing its most important election since 1800, according to an article on the website www.ushistory.org.
Although the phrase might date back even further, Crigler suspects it didn't become widespread until the 20th century. "I can't imagine George Washington saying it," she says. "The use of hyperbole is probably exaggerated by the presence of television."
So, what really was the most important presidential election in U.S. history?
Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt top Crigler's list. More recently, the crisis in Iran and double-digit inflation made the Carter-Reagan matchup of 1980 the most important election in modern times, she contends.
But others insist 2004 has a lock on the title. At last week's Democratic National Convention in Boston, the phrase was recited like a mantra. John Kerry used it in his acceptance speech. And, lest anyone miss the point, the idea also turned up in comments by Dianne Feinstein, Ted Kennedy, Dick Gephardt, party chair Terry McAuliffe and a bevy of others.
The criticalness of this year's vote is one thing Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on. Sen. John McCain of Arizona recently told the New York Daily News that "this is the most important election of our lifetime." And Vice President Cheney, who four years ago branded the 2000 vote "the most important election in at least 50 years," now thinks 2004 "may be the most important election during my lifetime, and I say that not just because my name's on the ballot."
Even singer Barbra Streisand, who authoritatively declared the 1998 congressional campaign "one of the most important elections in the history of this country," told USA Today she was working for Kerry because the upcoming vote is "the most important election of our lifetime."
It's going to be a tough act for the 2008 election to follow.
Times wire services contributed to this story.