For all the speculation swirling in the political world about President Obama or Mitt Romney giving up on one swing (or semi-swing) state or another, here’s the reality: Neither campaign is going to stop spending — and spending heavily — in every possible swing state between now and Nov. 6.
Why not? Because they don’t have to.
The idea of campaigns “pulling out” of swing states in order to conserve resources for other states where their prospects look better is, frankly, antiquated.
Those sort of pull-out decisions happened regularly between the establishment of public financing of presidential campaigns in the wake of Watergate in the early 1970s and 2008 — the last election where at least one of the nominees accepted public financing. (Who could forget John McCain’s decision to pull out of Michigan in 2008, John Kerry’s decision to forego spending more money in Missouri and Arizona in 2004 or Al Gore pulling out of Ohio in 2000?)
Neither Obama nor Romney accepted public financing for the general election, meaning that they can raise and spend as much as they can, well, raise and spend. And that means never having to say “I’m sorry, it’s over” to a swing state — even one where the trend line in polling isn’t headed in your direction.
Compare what McCain, the last presidential nominee who accepted public financing, had to work with financially, and what Romney/Obama have to spend. By accepting public financing, McCain got $84 million to spend from the time he became the party’s nominee on Sept. 4, 2008 until election day. At the end of September 2012 — so, roughly, one month later than McCain got his $84 million in 2008 — Romney had $183 million left to spend on the race while Obama had $149 million.
What that money means is that the campaigns can pursue a “both/and” (or more accurately a “both/and/and/and”) strategy when it comes to spending millions of dollars on ads — and get-out-the-vote operations — in swing states.
Even if Obama is slipping in North Carolina, there’s no question the race remains close enough to justify continuing to advertise (and advertise heavily) in it to ensure that if things change even slightly for the better for him in the last 14 days the campaign will be right there to take advantage.
The overload of cash that both candidates are carrying also poses another interesting question: Why not, in the final two weeks of the race, take a shot to move numbers in a swing(ish) state where there is relatively little presidential advertising on the air at the moment?
So, for Romney, why not put a few million dollars into Pennsylvania or Michigan just to see if the numbers move? Unlike years past, that money doesn’t have to come out of the cash you can spend in Ohio, Virginia or Florida. At the moment, Romney isn’t doing that — he has spent a total of $0 on TV in Michigan and Pennsylvania combined — but keep an eye out to see if he uses a little bit of money to make a run at one or both of them. (Pennsylvania is the far more likely choice due to its lack of any significant early voting.)
How then should you judge what the swingiest of the swing states are in these final two weeks if advertising dollars are no longer a good measure? Easy. Watch where the two presidential nominees go. Neither campaign will send their guy to a state that they don’t think is winnable. So, Obama is in Ohio and Florida today while Romney is in Nevada and Colorado today. That tells you that all four states belong in the final battlegrounds conversation. By contrast, Obama hasn’t been to North Carolina since the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention there in early September.
Where the candidates go — not what they spend — is the truest indication of the states that will decide the election.