By Amy Gardner
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Despite an apparent bounce for Mitt Romney in recent weeks, the fundamental dynamic of the electoral map appears to be locked in for now — with both campaigns focused on the nine states that have dominated for most of this year, according to interviews with strategists on both sides.
The Republican presidential nominee has enjoyed some momentum after a winning performance in the first debate that has seemingly put previously written-off states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan back in the mix, according to polls out this week. But the Romney campaign appears to be resisting pressure from supporters to broaden the fight and is not expanding their path to 270 electoral college votes — at least for now.
That leaves Romney with a very narrow path to victory, one that likely requires him to win large battlegrounds such as Florida, Virginia and Colorado along with Ohio, a swing state so critical that he is making four stops there in two days this week.
Romney’s advisers acknowledge that he still has work to do in Ohio. Just days ago, Romney moved five campaign workers from Pennsylvania to Ohio, one aide said. And though the Ohio race has grown more competitive — with Romney drawing within 5 percentage points of Obama, according to a new CNN/ORC International poll released Tuesday — the president still holds a lead in a state no Republican has ever won the presidency without.
If the narrow electoral map for Romney remains relatively fixed, the same appears true for President Barack Obama, whose advisers say they are committed to the handful of states they targeted months ago. When Obama appeared to hold a commanding lead across numerous states early last week, his strategists said they would not make a concerted play for some that appeared almost within reach, such as Arizona. Now that the race is closer, they say they are fortifying their existing borders, which allow him several options for getting to 270.
“What you’ve seen is a stable map for a very long time,” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said in an interview Tuesday.
The result is the smallest, most rigid playing field in recent history: One that excludes 41 states.
Both campaigns agree that 36 states are not competitive this year, with 22 of them expected to vote for Romney and 14 for Obama. That number is misleading, though, because the Obama states are more populous; when tallied according to electoral votes, those states give Obama 197 electoral votes and Romney 169.
Both Obama and Romney have spent the bulk of their money and attention this year in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Beyond those nine, another six are not being heavily contested but nor do the two campaigns agree that their outcome is certain.
No state illustrates the narrowness of this year’s playing field more than Ohio, where the candidates are spending more time than anywhere else. Even with Romney’s uptick in national polls, his path remains virtually nonexistent without Ohio. He could win Florida, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada and still lose without the Buckeye State. If anything, his bounce has pushed him to redouble his efforts within the existing map rather than thinking about expanding it.
For Obama, there is no movement toward expanding the map because he doesn’t need any more states to win. His advisers also say there is no need, at least yet, to rejigger resources in the existing arena because they have been investing heavily all along. Ohio is a case in point: Obama employs a paid staff of 700 on the ground there, and his advertising spending, though even with Romney now, has dwarfed his rival for much of the year.
“Ohio is a couple of things: It’s winnable, it’s expensive and it’s volatile,’” said Liz Brown, daughter of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and the head of the state Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign, a joint get-out-the-vote effort of the party and the candidates. “The last few weeks we’ve gone from ‘Obama’s won Ohio’ to ‘Oh, he gave a less-than-optimistic debate performance.’ This up and down of the narrative around Ohio doesn’t change those three facts. The strategy from the beginning has been a larger investment per capita in Ohio.”
Certainly, Romney could still be tempted to make a more aggressive play for Pennsylvania or Michigan, long labeled battlegrounds — but states that, in reality, have tilted heavily toward the Democrats in recent elections. And Obama, when he held a solid lead in virtually every swing state, was encouraged by some fellow Democrats to extend the range of his ads into Arizona, Missouri and Indiana.
Romney political director Rich Beeson said he doesn’t rule out an expansion of the map in the final month. He cautioned that the movement of staff from Pennsylvania to Ohio is not a concession in Pennsylvania, but a function of how important early voting is in Ohio. The personnel will probably return to Pennsylvania before Nov. 6, he said. Beeson also noted that more states are closely contested at a late date in the cycle than in past years.
“There are a lot of states out there moving,” he said.
But unlike some past election cycles — such as in 2000, when George W. Bush swooped into long-shot New Jersey right before ballots were cast — the Obama and Romney campaigns are showing unusual restraint by sticking to their long-standing electoral strategies.
“A lot of it’s just got to do with the polarization of the country,” said Phil Musser, a Republican strategist helping the Romney campaign. “The states that are purple are relatively few in number. The states that are red and blue are relatively large in number. Presidential contests are directly correlated to where you have split population centers that produce mixed results.”
A few factors explain how small and unchanging the playing field is this year.
First are demographic changes that have taken past battlegrounds off the map. New Mexico, for instance, was in the red column just eight years ago, when President George W. Bush won the state and his second term. Since then, it has been judged by both sides as irreversibly blue.
Similarly, Indiana, which Obama won four years ago, was deemed out of reach for him early on because its conservative electorate does not favor his policies. Even TV ads that have wafted into northeastern Indiana from several Ohio markets haven’t moved the needle. The same is true for northwest Arizona, where households have been inundated with TV ads from Las Vegas stations without changing polling numbers.
“There’s no evidence of spillover,” said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who recently helped conduct the Howey/DePauw Poll in Indiana. “Obama is losing by big margins.”
Another influence is the rise in data about where voters are, who they are and whether they can be persuaded to vote a certain way. Through commercial databases, polling, phone-banking and door-knocking, campaigns know more about voters than ever before. They know who is persuadable and who is not. They know how many contacts it takes to reach a voter, how much that would cost, and whether that cost is worthwhile given how liberal or conservative — how winnable — a state is.
Some states drift in and out of that competitive zone. At the outset of this election cycle, advisers from both parties thought Arizona, New Mexico, Pennsylvania or Michigan might drift into play. Additionally, outside groups have aired ads in a wider field that has included Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Michigan. But those lists have shrunk more recently. A confluence of circumstances — including growing Latino populations and the popularity of Obama’s auto-industry bailout — have given this year’s playing field its uniquely narrow borders.
It’s possible the field could narrow further, but only if Obama decides to pull out of states he decides he can’t win or doesn’t need. North Carolina is the best example of this — a state that has been rated by most pollsters a likely win for Romney but where Obama has invested heavily, perhaps if only to force Romney to do the same. If that was the strategy, it worked: Republicans have spent tens of millions on the airwaves in North Carolina to match Obama’s investment, and Romney is scheduled to travel there for a campaign appearance today.
Romney, conversely, holds few such options. He needs more of the swing states to win overall, meaning he can’t afford to pull out of any of them without looking like he’s conceding the race.