The American presidential campaign has become a contest that will be decided in as few as nine states, creating a narrower and less-forgiving path for Republican Mitt Romney to secure the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to oust incumbent President Barack Obama.
The former Massachusetts governor and his allies have shifted television advertising dollars to reflect the state of play following the two parties’ nominating conventions.
“We all know the presidential campaign is not a national election; it’s an election in individual states,” said Alex Vogel, a Republican consultant who isn’t working with Romney. “Around this time, the focus shifts from how much money the campaigns are raising to where they are spending and not spending.”
Romney’s campaign spent $4.2 million this week on its first advertising blitz after the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida and the Democrats’ nominating session in Charlotte, North Carolina, according to a media buyer who tracks such purchases. His 15 different commercials, which carry messages tailored to each region, are airing in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, Nevada, Iowa and Colorado. This week, he reserved time for a 16th ad in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, according to Federal Communication Commission records.
Outside groups helping Romney, including Americans for Prosperity and American Crossroads, also have trained their advertising firepower on those same states, according to a review of data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
Obama and supportive Democrats have scaled back resources in states where Romney and his backers aren’t advertising, suggesting both sides have settled on the same nine states, which have a combined 110 electoral votes.
In this environment, Obama could secure re-election just by winning Florida and one of the remaining eight battleground states. That’s because the president is favored to win the 207 electoral votes from states that he carried four years ago by at least 15 percentage points. Michigan is among those. He also has the edge in Minnesota, which has 10 votes, and Pennsylvania, which has 20. That would bring Obama to 237 electoral votes.
Romney’s path is more difficult. His smaller base of 191 electoral votes includes states that the president lost in 2008 plus Indiana, where polls show Romney is favored to defeat Obama four years after the president carried the state by 1 percentage point.
Republicans need to win 72 percent of the electoral votes in the nine targeted states, which would require victories in five to eight of them. Florida and Ohio are the biggest prizes; it’s been 88 years since a Republican was elected president without winning Florida, and no Republican has ever won without Ohio.
Romney and his allies have signaled through advertising that they aren’t going to compete seriously in Michigan and Pennsylvania, which together have 36 electoral votes and last voted Republican for president in 1988.
While Romney campaigned Aug. 24 in Michigan, his birth state, he hasn’t aired a single general-election TV ad there or in Pennsylvania, CMAG data show.
Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group co-founded by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, last ran presidential ads in Michigan on May 13. The group stopped its Pennsylvania run Aug. 30 even as it continues advertising in the nine swing states, CMAG data current through Sept. 11 show.
Karl Rove, a former political strategist for President George W. Bush, identifies Michigan as a “toss-up,” on an electoral map posted to his web site. Yet neither Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies nor American Crossroads -- outside groups Rove helps guide -- has advertised there on Romney’s behalf since Aug. 6, CMAG data show.
Conversely, Rove’s map shows New Hampshire as leaning toward Obama even as American Crossroads spends money to advertise against the president in the state.
Obama hasn’t advertised in Michigan, where the unemployment rate has fallen by more than 5 percentage points in less than three years, to 9 percent in July from 14.2 percent in August 2009. Obama has shifted off the air in Pennsylvania after running more than 10,000 ads in the state since early May.
Obama holds the edge in surveys in Michigan and Pennsylvania. In Michigan, a Detroit News poll of likely voters conducted Aug. 18-20 showed Obama up by 6 percentage points; an EPIC-MRA poll of likely voters Aug. 28 had the president up by 3 points.
A Philadelphia Inquirer poll of likely voters, conducted Aug. 21-23, showed Obama with a 9 percentage-point lead over Romney in Pennsylvania. A Morning Call poll of likely voters taken from Aug. 20-22 in the state yielded the same result.
North Carolina, measured through polls and recent advertising buys, remains in play. It comes with 15 electoral votes, more than any swing state except Florida and Ohio. Recent polls show Romney with an edge in the state.
Romney “cannot possibly” win the election “without North Carolina, and the Obama campaign knows that,” political analyst Charlie Cook said last week in Charlotte before the Democratic National Convention began.
Obama’s campaign has aired more than 24,000 ads in the state, at an estimated cost of about $11 million, according to CMAG. Romney and Republican outside groups together have aired about the same number of commercials there.
Romney also is putting up a general-election ad in Wisconsin, the home state of vice-presidential running mate Paul Ryan -- a sign Republicans see the state as competitive even after Obama carried it by 14 percentage points four years ago.
Aiding Romney’s Wisconsin campaign are the Republican National Committee and Restore Our Future, which ran ads there through late August, and Americans for Prosperity, which was still airing ads in Wisconsin as of Sept. 11. Obama hasn’t advertised in Wisconsin.
“What’s interesting is that Wisconsin has gone more into play because of Ryan on the ticket,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said last week in Charlotte. Wisconsin is “a very swing state,” she said.
Last week, Priorities USA Action, a super-PAC supportive of Obama, purchased at least $100,000 worth of air time through the end of October on Milwaukee TV stations, a review of Federal Communications Commission records available online shows.
The Romney campaign’s focus on nine states enables it to further tailor messages to specific regions, said Vogel, the Republican consultant.
Immediately after the Republican National Convention, Romney shipped a set of 16 advertisements to television stations in those states. Each begins the same way, with footage of Romney giving his acceptance address.
“This president can ask us to be patient,” Romney is seen saying at his convention. “This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault, but this president cannot tell us that you’re better off today than when he took office.”
Next, a female narrator identifies whichever state is the target, saying it, too, is not better off. In Virginia, for example, an ad airing in Norfolk focuses on defense spending. “His defense cuts will weaken national security and threaten over 130,000 jobs,” the narrator says of Obama.
An energy-themed ad on stations in Roanoke and Richmond says Obama’s “war on coal, gas and oil is crushing energy and manufacturing jobs.”
Such specificity -- known as micro-targeting -- is a better use of advertising than blasting one message across all 50 states, Vogel said.
“This is a much more sophisticated than changing a name in ad,” he said. “It’s a recognition of what the economy is doing in each area and driving home a message that resonates there.”
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