Matt Yglesias is optimistic about the economy in 2012 – not giddy optimistic, but looking on the bright side nonetheless. I have no idea whether he’s right or not, but his post does remind me of two related points about election year 2012.

First: The fate of the economy is far, far more important to the outcome of the November elections than any other single thing we could talk about at this point. It’s more important than who the Republicans choose as their candidate. It’s more important than campaign themes and strategies and gaffes and speeches. It’s more important than most policy positions and policy decisions, too. Even in most cases those policy decisions that affect the economy – because while it is possible for government policy to undermine economic growth, lots of things that happen in the economy aren’t really direct consequences of specific government actions.

And second: Predictions about the economy often – very often – wind up getting it entirely wrong.

In other words, we could be in for an Obama landslide thanks to an economic boom, a GOP landslide caused by a double-dip recession, or a close and competitive race in which all those things that I said weren’t as important as the economy really could make the difference. And we still won’t know which it’ll be for a few more months.

Of course, if you’re a candidate, you certainly want to do all you can to maximize your chances, even though it may well turn out that it doesn’t matter. And the campaign counts – a lot – even if it doesn’t determine the winner. It matters quite a bit who the GOP chooses even if it doesn’t determine the election outcome, because personal characteristics of presidents do matter and that person may well become president. It matters how the ebb and flow of campaigns produce commitments, which whoever wins the election will then try to keep in 2013. It even matters who loses and how, because they will influence what the out-party does over the next four years, including who they nominate and what policies they embrace the next time around. Campaigns and elections matter a lot in U.S. politics, no question about it.

But as far as which party will be getting ready for an inauguration 12 months from now: A whole lot of that is out of the hands of the campaigns, and it’s worth it for us to stop every once in a while and remember that.