The Trail of TV Money Tells Us Where the Presidential Battlegrounds Are

Over the past generation, American voting behaviour has become ever more ideological. Traditionally, American parties were vaguely defined and extraordinarily ideologically broad, a stark contrast to the definedly Socialist or anti-Socialist mass parties of Europe and Australasia during post-War era. Since the 1960s, the middle ground of American politics has steadily shrunk, a process which has accelerated since the turn of the Century with the rapid extirpation of Republicans, at federal level at least, in the Northeast and Democrats in most of the South and Great Plains.

Whereas two generations ago, Harry Truman rode the rails across America to stump in small towns in unlikely States on his way to a famous come-from-behind victory, today’s Presidential campaigns are targeted like a laser beam at the handful of states that matter. The three most populous States in the Union – California, Texas and New York – are sideshows in presidential elections as are many states that were habitual neck-and-neck races as recently as the 1990s. Republicans have now virtually abandoned the Northeast and Pacific Northwest in Presidential elections, just as Democrats have abandoned the Mississippi Valley and the Upper South.

In this year’s Presidential election, the battleground is narrower than ever. The National Journal has a superb online tool which records week-by-week spending on TV advertising in key states by the Obama and Romney campaigns and their key surrogates in the world of Political Action Committees. ‘Follow the money’ is always a useful watchword in politics, and while political campaigns always claim to be fighting on the broadest credible front, the money trail tells a different story. Over the summer, Romney and Obama have been fighting the election seriously in at most ten and perhaps as few as eight states.

Firstly, let’s look at which states clearly aren’t in play at present. Polling in New Jersey flatters only to ultimately deceive Republicans, at least in federal elections, almost every time, and Romney is not competing seriously in 2012. New Mexico, a key swing state in recent elections which produced photo finishes in 2000 and 2004, seems also to have been ceded to Obama by Romney almost from day one. And while Obama is maintaining a reasonably sized ground operation in Indiana, which he won by a whisker in 2008, he isn’t spending any money on advertising there and seems to have given up on both the Hoosier State and of repeating his even more improbable win in Nebraska’s heavily urban Second Congressional District after boundary changes. (Nebraksa and Maine are the only states which elect part of their Electoral College delegations by congressional district rather than operating a winner-takes-all system at the state level.) And while Obama will doubtless do considerably better against Romney in Arizona than he did against native son John McCain, there’s no evidence that he thinks he can win there or is trying particularly hard, whatever enthusiasts in the left-wing blogosphere think.

The big surprise seems to be Pennsylvania. Romney has spent no money in the Keystone State, and Obama’s advertising has been scaled back considerably over the summer. There has been some serious money spent on attack advertising by Romney-aligned third party groups, but it has been sporadic.

Polling for Romney in Pennsylvania has been consistently poor and the State’s demographics make it unlikely to flip in a highly polarised year. Traditionally the hugely populated suburban counties around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, moderate-to-conservative fiscally but socially liberal and staunchly pro-choice, are the deciding factor in Pennsylvania elections. In recent times, however, they have shifted notably towards the Democrats, and the 2012 version of Romney is probably not the best placed candidate to win the soccer moms of Montgomery County back to the GOP fold. If Romney has indeed decided to concede Pennsylvania, that may reflect the problems his campaign has at present, but it is probably also a smart move.

Many commentators have also come to the conclusion that Romney has ceded Michigan, despite his native son status there. Neither he nor Obama has spent any money on advertising in the state so far, and while Karl Rove’s Crossroads Political Action Committee did spend some serious money in patches over the summer, they seemed to have wound this down in the past week.

Wisconsin had seemed to be in the same boat, but Paul Ryan’s selection as Romney’s running mate obviously changes all that. That probably explains why the billionaire Koch brothers spent a million on advertising there in the past week after the Badger State had been all but ignored by both sides since the Republican primaries. Paul Ryan has always carried his own district by big margins, but has never run for statewide office, so it’s hard to tell how much benefit he will bring to the Romney ticket across the state, but it must now be considered very much in play, unless the money trail over the next 4-6 weeks tells us otherwise.

Which are the eight states definitely in play? Florida, the fourth most populous state in the Union and the largest whose Electoral Votes are actually in play, is key. Obama probably can win without Florida – indeed he can lose the entire South and Ohio as long as he wins every other battleground state. Romney can’t win without Florida, it’s as simple as that. The Sunshine State is bewilderingly complex and geographically huge – it’s an 11 hour drive from Miami to Pensacola. Advertising in the state is also massively expensive. But if Obama wins here he can effectively declare victory, and polling has been neck and neck for months, so both campaigns will spend whatever megabucks they need to stay in the race. Obama also has a huge ground operation in place.

Virginia and North Carolina are also both the scene of huge spending by both campaigns. Virginia, long reliably Republican, now seems to be a true bell-weather State, driven by the rapid growth of Washington’s ethnically diverse suburbs, and the slow defection of socially liberal suburban whites to the Democratic camp across the USA. Similar factors helped Obama win North Carolina by a cigarette-paper thin margin in 2008, and although polling the Tarheel State has narrowly favoured Romney, Obama’s winning coalition of African-Americans (over 20% of NC’s electorate), liberal middle-class Whites in the suburbs and the Bluestack Mountains, and unionised working-class Whites in a heavily industrialised state, is still broadly in tact. As Obama doesn’t need to win North Carolina, and it’s unlikely to be the decisive State in the election, his strategy may be to keep the race close and force Romney to spend considerable cash.

Ohio is a true marginal, and a state that has experienced relatively little of the two great changes in American demographics in recent times – immigration from Latin America and Asia and the explosive growth of the exurbs. Ohio remains a heavily White working-class state, unusually dependent on heavy industry. American heavy industry remains, by and large, in crisis, a clear drag on Obama. At the same time the Ohio voters who propelled Republicans into a commanding position in state government just 2 years ago seem to have significant buyer’s remorse, decisively throwing out their Republican Governor’s keynote trade union legislation in a referendum last year. Polling has Obama in the lead, but not by an awful lot. While Obama could lose Ohio and still win, if he doesn’t win the Buckeye State he needs to sweep everything else in play outside the South, a risky strategy. Similarly, there is a path to victory for Romney if he loses Ohio, but it looks a treacherous one.

Iowa, where the industrial Midwest meets the conservative rural Great Plains region, is receiving heavy attention from both campaigns. Eastern Iowa isn’t much different from Ohio, except the minority population is even lower. Western Iowa is just like Kansas or Nebraska. Obama’s lead in polling is thin, and the margin of victory in the Hawkeye State was under 1% in 2004 and 2008. One particular local factor is that the crucial role of the Iowa caucuses in selecting Presidential candidates means that both candidates know the state very well indeed.

The two western battlegrounds, Colorado and Nevada, are the scene of epic spending by both campaigns. Both states have seen explosive population growth over the past generation or so, with Nevada’s population growing twentyfold since 1950. A tidal wave of working- and lower middle-class Californians seeking affordable homes and rapid Hispanic immigration have between them transformed both states’ politics in less than two decades. The southwest has been hit particularly badly by the recession, and Greater Las Vegas, home to 90% of Nevada’s population, arguably the epicentre of the great American real estate bust. Both states have a definitely libertarian streak – Democrats in both states tend to be pro-gun, while Colorado may become the first state to legalise marijuana possession if a referendum to be held on the same day as the Presidential election passes. For all both states’ wild expanses, the election will be decided where most of the people live – the endlessly sprawling cookie-cutter suburbia of Denver and Las Vegas.

Finally, New Hampshire is the only state in the northeast still in play. Romney is polling better than most recent Republican Presidential candidates in the region, which is unlikely to do him much good (it frankly does not matter if Obama wins New York by 12% or 20%), but New Hampshire’s four Electoral Votes could be crucial in a tight race. The heavily populated south of the State is very much Boston commuterland, and also gets its TV and most of its radio from the city. Romney the Massachusetts governor was therefore a familiar figure to many New Hampshire voters – and as a pro-Choice social moderate and a fiscal moderate conservative, was an almost perfect fit for the Granite State. Romney has redefined himself dramatically since his days in Massachusetts politics, and while fiscal conservatism is not necessarily a disadvantage in a state whose motto is ‘Live Free Or Die’, the 2012 Romney may be too socially conservative for one of the most secular States in the Union.

Around 80% of the American population lives in states effectively irrelevant in the choice of their next President. This is a habitual problem of first-past-the-post electoral systems – Australia, France and the UK are little different – and is unlikely to change any time soon. The campaigns’ narrow geographical focus may be regrettable for democracy, but unquestionably represents the most efficient use of campaign resources, especially in an ideologically polarised nation with significant regional divisions.

One of the ironies of the 2012 Presidential campaign is that despite the general American disaffection with party politics, disgust at the endless barrage of attack adverts and the tidal wave of big money that funds them, neither campaign is even pretending to promise change. Thanks to the Supreme Court, meaningful campaign finance reform is probably off the agenda for a generation.