For candidates, it's all about Ohio
GREENSBORO, N.C. – With only five weeks until Election Day, Barack Obama spent Saturday in two Republican states that Democrat John Kerry never seriously contested in 2004: North Carolina and Virginia.
The Southern swing suggested that Obama, despite scaling back operations recently in Georgia, North Dakota and Alaska, still appears determined to expand the electoral map. Aides said Obama would not waste one of the last remaining Saturdays of the campaign with vice presidential nominee Joe Biden in a long-shot state.
Obama remains competitive in a longer list of of states than Kerry was at this point four years ago, but like John McCain, he is battling most heavily across the same handful of states that have dominated recent presidential politics, according to a Politico analysis of candidate travel schedules since June 4.
Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania lead the list of the most visited states in this year’s campaign, just as they did in 2004.
Despite the focus on the Mountain West as the new electoral battleground this year, Obama and McCain have still spent only half the amount of time in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada as they have in traditional swing states.
The nominees have traveled to about 30 states each since the general election began in June, with Obama spending a majority of his time in states that voted Republican in 2004, most notably Virginia. With his visit Saturday to Fredericksburg, Virginia became his third most-visited state, with 8 separate visits—behind Ohio (9) and Florida (10) and ahead of Missouri and Pennsylvania (7 each).
McCain is giving serious attention to the Democratic states of Pennsylvania (12, which is tied for tops with Ohio) and Michigan (7), but he still remains most directed toward defending Republican must-wins such as Ohio, Florida (8) and Missouri (6). McCain has yet to spend much time in North Carolina, a state Obama has visited four times since June. McCain last appeared there in May.
If advertising spending offers the roadmap to electoral strategy, then the travel schedule is the GPS system of the campaign.
“That is the window into their private polling,” said Larry Sabato, an analyst with the University of Virginia. “It really is. Personal time is as – or more – valuable than ad time. We are at the point where voters want to know that the candidate cares.”
Politico's analysis was compiled by reviewing the public schedules of both candidates and cross-checking them with news reports and other public sources. The final list was reviewed for accuracy by the Obama and McCain campaigns.
What the analysis revealed:
The old map is the new map
Despite the early predictions about an expansive competitive landscape, the 2008 campaign remains a fight over a dozen states, analysts say.
The selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential running nominee helped solidify McCain’s standing in GOP-leaning states, such as Montana, where Obama visited right before heading into Denver for the convention. Obama also spent the Fourth of July weekend in Montana—and North Dakota, where his campaign redeployed its staff this month to other states. Those were his only visits to those states.
Obama was still running less than $60,000 worth of ads in Montana and North Dakota as late as the week following the GOP convention, according to the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.
But these states remained exceptions to the rule.
Since the party conventions ended, the campaigns have traveled a similar path through less than 10 states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Wisconsin.
Obama added Nevada (3), Indiana (3) and North Carolina to his schedule, while McCain dipped into Missouri, Minnesota and Iowa.
“We still very much live in a red state/blue state country, and the candidate travel does indicate that at the end of the day, you are looking at an Electoral College election that will leave almost no room for error,” said Chris Lehane, a former aide to Vice President Al Gore during the 2000 election.
Ohio, again, is the center of the universe
Obama has visited Florida and Ohio more than any other states. For McCain, it’s Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The Mountain West still plays second fiddle
Yes, the Democrats held their convention in Colorado, hoping to signal to this newly-competitive region that it matters.
But so far, Obama has given more time to the traditional battlegrounds since the general election began, spending 26 days in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida compared to 11 days in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado.
For McCain, the distribution is more uneven. He has spent about one-third the amount of time in the Mountain West as he has in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.
The lopsided treatment has much to do with electoral arithmetic. There are 68 electoral votes available in the traditional battlegrounds versus 19 votes in the three Mountain West states. And if McCain doesn’t win Ohio and Florida, his path to the presidency is likely blocked, lending outsized importance to those states. For Obama, he needs to hold onto Pennsylvania.
Obama returns Monday to the Mountain West, making his second visits to Colorado and Nevada since the Democratic convention.
Money still matters
Obama’s decision to opt out of the public campaign financing system means he can run in more states, but it also means he needs to spend more time in solid Democratic states because those are the money centers.
“His waiving the $85 million in matching funds is a whole new ballgame,” said a Republican strategist not involved in the presidential campaign. “It is interesting to see how he balances expanding the playing field and hitting the coasts.”
Three weeks ago, he detoured to Red Bank, N.J., for fundraisers. A week later, Obama hosted money events in Beverly Hills, Miami and Albuquerque. And last Monday, he returned to Chicago after a day in Wisconsin to raise more cash. On each occasion, Obama was able to hold only one public event that day.
To be clear, McCain still needs to raise money for the Republican National Committee, and he spent considerable time over the summer visiting solidly Democratic states simply to attend fundraisers.
But Democratic and Republican strategists will be watching Obama to see whether his decision to become the first presidential candidate to forgo public money in the general election is worth it.
“Obama’s travel will show how well his fundraising is going,” the GOP strategist said. “If he doesn’t go back to a state like North Carolina in the next four weeks, it may be because he’s forced to spend time in California raising cash. That will be the interesting thing to watch as we go forward. His fundraising schedule may have an impact on his political event schedule. And it could very well shrink his physical presence in some of the key states.”
It’s not just the state. It’s where in the state
Perhaps most telling, Lehane said, is where the nominee goes within a state.
While McCain adheres mostly to traditional Republican markets, which overlap with swing areas, Obama is traveling to locales besides the usual suspects.
He goes to counties where Bush drubbed Kerry, areas that don’t usually see presidential candidates. There were stops in recent weeks in Grand Junction, Colo., and Elko, Nev., and Abingdon, Va.
“They are clearly doing some precision targeting to get into the key Electoral College states – but go to specific places within those states where a visit will result in wall-to-wall free press coverage in order to impact the margins of these states,” Lehane said.
The one that they want
There’s always a state or two that one party really hopes to steal from the other for bragging rights as much electoral votes.
For Obama, that state is Virginia. For McCain, it’s Michigan.
Obama’s first campaign stop after clinching the nomination was Bristol, Va., an Appalachian town in the state's southwestern corner. He has made Virginia one of his regular stops, returning seven times since June to visit 13 towns.
A win in Virginia would give Democrats a foothold once again in the South in presidential races, and provide evidence for Obama’s claim that he can push his party into new territory.
“He must believe he has better shot there than in Indiana, which has gotten less attention,” said Douglas Schoen, a pollster to President Clinton during the 1996 election.
McCain has made half a dozen trips to swing counties in Michigan, where Republican strategists say the economic downturn may work to their favor. Under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Michigan has suffered what some have called a single-state recession, with years of job losses in the automotive industry and home foreclosures.
The scandal-plagued mayor of Detroit, Democrat Kwame Kilpatrick, compounded the problem until he resigned earlier this month as part of a plea deal with prosecutors.
A runner-up state for McCain is Pennsylvania, his most visited state, where he has traveled almost every week since June.
The last Republican to win the state was George H.W. Bush in 1988, and most Northeastern states have been a dead zone for Republican presidential candidates for years. But McCain appears motivated by several factors: Obama’s nine-point primary election loss; one of the largest elderly populations in the country; the moderate Republican leanings of the Philadelphia suburbs; and the socially conservative streak of voters through central and Western Pennsylvania.
Most likely to flip
Based on the travel schedule, Obama doesn't look worried about Iowa, which narrowly voted for George Bush in 2004. Since the start of the general election, he's gone only twice to the state, where the Democrat won the Iowa caucus and now holds a 9-percentage point lead, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average.
McCain has dropped into Iowa three times, hoping to keep the state in the Republican column.
The town hall, R.I.P?
After a long productive life in the 2008 campaign, the esteemed town hall event is on life support.
McCain held only three in the last six weeks. And Obama has gone his longest stretch without one in months, last answering voter questions Sept. 12 in Dover, N.H.
The political rally is now the nominees' weapon of choice as Election Day draws near.
For candidates, it's all about Ohio
By CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN | 9/27/08 7:31 PM EDT