That leaves Romney with a very narrow road to victory, one that probably 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 to that state from Pennsylvania, one aide said. And though the Ohio race has become more competitive — with Romney drawing within five percentage points of President Obama, according to a CNN/ORC International poll released Tuesday — the president still holds a lead in the state, without which no Republican has ever won the presidency.
If the electoral map for Romney remains relatively fixed, the same appears true for Obama, whose advisers say they are committed to the handful of states they targeted months ago. When the president seemed 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 borders, which allow him several options for getting to 270 electoral votes.
“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. But the Obama states are more populous; when tallied according to electoral votes, these three dozen states give Obama 197 votes and Romney 169.
Obama and Romney have spent the bulk of their money and attention this year in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. Five more states are not being heavily contested, though the campaigns do not agree that the outcomes there are certain.
No state illustrates the narrowness of the playing field more than Ohio, where the candidates are spending more time than anywhere else. Even with Romney’s uptick in national polls, victory remains virtually impossible for him 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 electoral map rather than think about expanding it.