Do presidential candidates have an obligation to campaign everywhere, and to make particular appeals to every demographic group? That’s the case made by this big article that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times and continues to drive discussion today. Here’s an excerpt:

Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to be dispensing with the nationwide electoral strategy that won her husband two terms in the White House and brought white working-class voters and great stretches of what is now red-state America back to Democrats.
Instead, she is poised to retrace Barack Obama’s far narrower path to the presidency: a campaign focused more on mobilizing supporters in the Great Lakes states and in parts of the West and South than on persuading undecided voters.
Mrs. Clinton’s aides say it is the only way to win in an era of heightened polarization, when a declining pool of voters is truly up for grabs. Her liberal policy positions, they say, will fire up Democrats, a less difficult task than trying to win over independents in more hostile territory — even though a broader strategy could help lift the party with her.
This early in the campaign, however, forgoing a determined outreach effort to all 50 states, or even most of them, could mean missing out on the kind of spirited conversation that can be a unifying feature of a presidential election. And it could leave Mrs. Clinton, if she wins, with the same difficulties Mr. Obama has faced in governing with a Republican-controlled Congress.

In terms of geography, this is a bizarre — yet bizarrely common — argument. I addressed this at some length in this piece at the American Prospect, but the simple fact is that as long as we have an Electoral College and 48 of the 50 states assign their electors on a winner-take-all basis, there is absolutely no reason for candidates to campaign in states where they have no chance of winning. So they don’t. They also don’t campaign in states where they have no chance of losing.

Neither the Democratic nor the Republican nominee will spend large amounts of time stumping for votes in California, nor in Oklahoma, because everyone already knows what the outcome in those states will be. Democratic senator Joe Manchin is quoted in the article saying Clinton should campaign in his home state of West Virginia, since if Al Gore had won the state in 2000, he would have been president. But in the last presidential election, Barack Obama lost West Virginia by 27 points. If Manchin actually thinks Clinton or any Democratic presidential contender has a shot there, he may not be quite the political genius he fancies himself.

Former U.S. senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced that she’s running for president in 2016. Here's the Democrat’s take on women’s rights, Benghazi and more, in her own words. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

In any case, it’s the demographic factor, not the geographic one (even though they overlap), that poses some genuinely interesting questions. Both parties face severe hurdles with certain slices of the electorate, defined by race, religion, gender, age, and any number of other variables. How far should we expect them to go to make up for their deficiencies? And is there anything wrong with not bothering to make special appeals to groups that aren’t inclined to like you?

There’s an important distinction that we should make, between the things a party may have done in the past to alienate a particular group, and the decision to attempt to undo that alienation. For instance, Republicans have a real problem with Hispanics, the nation’s largest minority group and one that is growing quickly. The reasons are both substantive and stylistic: the GOP has largely opposed the kind of comprehensive immigration reform many Hispanics want to see, and it has also sent some unfortunate messages of hostility toward immigrants. But let’s assume for the moment that the eventual Republican nominee isn’t going to change where he stands on immigration. Are we going to call it a moral failure if he doesn’t stroll through Hispanic communities and get photographed wolfing down an empanada?

If you asked him, he’d say that even if you disagree with him about immigration policy, the other things he supports are what’s good for Americans, Hispanics included. Likewise, Hillary Clinton would be happy to explain all the reasons why white men in rural areas of the South should find plenty to support in her program. But that’s not enough: we want to see them grovel.

So something strange happens: first we demand that candidates pander enthusiastically, “reaching out” to every demographic subgroup whether there are many votes to be won there or not. Then when they actually take us up on it, we examine the pandering with a magnifying glass to unearth any notes of insufficient “authenticity” and mock them if their performance isn’t convincing enough. Did Clinton’s speech take on a bit of a Southern lilt? Did Mitt Romney sound foolish talking about his love of grits? Then they’re obviously big phonies who can’t be trusted.

The Times story says Clinton is eschewing the supposedly broad, unifying kind of campaign her husband ran in favor of “Obama’s far narrower path to the presidency: a campaign focused more on mobilizing supporters in the Great Lakes states and in parts of the West and South than on persuading undecided voters.” The obvious implication is that 1) you have to choose one or the other, and 2) we’d rather have a candidate who concentrated on persuading those who aren’t initially ready to vote for her than one who gets her supporters out to vote. But why is that?

The truth is that every candidate wants to do both: he or she will be trying to persuade and trying to mobilize. But neither one is inherently more admirable than the other. Convincing someone who hasn’t voted before to get to the polls is no less a service to America than persuading one of the tiny number of truly independent voters to come to your side.

And as much as we might lament polarization, it does bring a clarity to campaigns. Back in that 2000 election, lots of people who thought themselves knowledgeable claimed there wasn’t a dime’s bit of difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It wasn’t true then, and today nobody with half a brain is going to say the same thing about Clinton and whoever the Republican nominee is. If one of them succeeds in getting their voters to the polls and thereby achieves a majority, then they deserve to win. Let’s not forget that Barack Obama’s “far narrower path” to the White House was paved with the votes of a majority of the American electorate. Twice.