President Obama’s political advisers employed a creative and ultimately successful strategy on their way to victory in 2008. They enlarged the electoral map, pouring resources into states Democrats had lost for decades in an effort to provide multiple paths to the 270 electoral votes needed to win. The strategy was designed, in part, to avoid having the election decided in Ohio or Florida.
A provocative new analysis by Brookings Institution scholar William Galston argues that, in 2012, Obama would be wiser to focus on traditional heartland battlegrounds such as Ohio rather than on some of the peripheral states that he put into his column in 2008 or others that his campaign is considering. To do otherwise, Galston says, “could turn out to be a mistake of epic proportions.”
“Barack Obama’s path to reelection runs through Ohio and the Midwest, not around them,” he writes. “And that means taking seriously the concerns of the voters throughout the region who deserted Democrats in droves last year.”
The Post’s Chris Cillizza laid out the arithmetic of Obama’s expand-the-map strategy on Monday, examining the extent to which the president can lose a number of the states he took away from Republicans four years ago and still win reelection.
“The grim economic state of the country has created a toxic political environment for Obama,” he wrote. “But the ground on which the 2012 election will be fought still favors him and should give Democrats some hope that he can claim a second term in a year’s time.”
Obama’s strategy was successful in 2008 for several reasons. One was having superior resources. By declining federal financing for the general election in 2008, Obama was able to amass the biggest campaign bank account ever. He used that money not only to massively outspend Republican nominee John McCain on television but also to invest heavily in voter registration and mobilization efforts that helped change the electorate in key states.
Another reason some of states that have not been traditional battlegrounds look appealing to the Obama team is because the president attracted a coalition unlike that of most previous Democratic nominees.
Obama’s coalition was built on record turnout among African Americans, enthusiasm among voters under age 30, strong support from Latinos and the candidate’s appeal to well-educated white women. Together they helped him to become the first Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson to gain more than 50.1 percent of the national vote.
That coalition, say Obama advisers, still makes such states as North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado more attractive targets for the president than some traditional battlegrounds such as Ohio, which has a larger percentage of white working-class voters and older voters, two groups that have been difficult for Obama.
Galston examines recent polls and comes away convinced that the evidence today makes it “unlikely that a mass mobilization of weakly connected ‘new coalition’ voters — especially Hispanics and young adults — will succeed to the extent that it did in 2008. And second, the United States looks a lot more like Ohio than like Colorado.”
Galston’s argument goes as follows: Ohio is a microcosm of the country. The strategy for winning a popular vote majority, which the president must do, amounts to the same in Ohio as it does nationally. Second, the economy will be the dominant issue in a way it was not in 2008. If Obama cannot persuade voters in Ohio, and nationally, that he has done everything he could to rebuild the country’s economic foundation, he’ll have trouble winning.
Galston acknowledges that Obama can lose Ohio and still win next year. But although that is arithmetically correct, he finds it politically irrelevant. “A candidate who can carry Ohio is almost certain to win the national election,” he writes. “A candidate who loses Ohio will almost certainly lose.”
He notes that the last Democrat to win the presidency without Ohio was John F. Kennedy in 1960 but adds that Kennedy was able to win Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and half of Alabama’s electors. Obama won’t win any of those next year. And who was the last Republican to win the White House without Ohio? Well, there isn’t one.
Galston examines Ohio’s recent voting patterns and compares them with the overall national vote. He concludes that if Obama were to lose Ohio, he would be very likely to lose Florida, North Carolina and Indiana, where his vote share in 2008 was lower than it was in Ohio. That would not cost him the presidency but would put him “on the brink of defeat.” Galston argues, “That’s not a chance a sensible campaign would take.”
Obama’s advisers long have seen Ohio as a tough state for the president. They are prepared to fight hard there next year, as they will be in many other states. Galston’s argument is that the president would be better off if he had the Ohio electorate in his head from now until Election Day and not assume he can largely replicate the 2008 campaign.
Four years ago, the political climate was so favorable to Obama that he didn’t have to make some of the choices that could confront him in his reelection campaign. His advisers hope to keep their electoral map options open as long as possible. With the landscape as daunting as it appears and his coalition weakened, that won’t be as easy as it was in 2008.