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.


  • An excellent tour d’horizon, amazingly mentioning only once and in passing the egregious Koch brothers and their malign influence.

  • CookedBreakfast

    Terrific analysis Gerry. Election campaigning in the US never fails to amaze and disturb in equal measure…

  • The main spectator draw in US elections is the down-and-dirty mud-wrestling. Early days, but good to see the NY Times going for the mucky side of “casino magnate” Sheldon Adelson’s Chinese connection.

    When dung-flinging, even the smallest dropping should not go uncast: so, let’s award marks for artistic impression to this:

    The investigations are unfolding as Mr. Adelson has become an increasing presence in this year’s presidential election, contributing at least $35 million to Republican groups. On Tuesday, Mitt Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, is to appear at a fund-raiser at the Sands’s Venetian casino in Las Vegas; Mr. Adelson is likely to attend, a person close to him said.

    In the political arena, Mr. Adelson is perhaps best known as a hawkish defender of Israel. But whatever the outcome of the inquiries involving his businesses in China, an examination of those activities suggests a keen interest in Washington’s China policy and highlights the degree to which politics and profits are often intertwined for Mr. Adelson.

  • wild turkey


    as stated by Malcolm above, an astute and comprehensive post. well done. a far better analysis than anything available in the american MSM. (re-reading that last sentence, i don’t mean to damn you with faint praise gerry)

    many people on this side of the atlantic assume the presidential is a winner take all beauty contest. they do not take into account the electoral college. an institution, as pointed out in Gore Vidals brief but brilliant book, Creating a Nation, the framers came up with the college to keep democracy at least one remove

    on the general malaise and disconnect re american politics, back to Gore?

    Vidal was the first to call the rot of American democracy to task. On the Johnny Carson show, (Irish people, for Johnny think Gay Bryne) I recall Gore said something to the effect,
    “There is no Republican Party or Democratic Party. There is just the Banks’ Party.”

    This would have been a good twenty years before the 2008 market collapse, the subsequent TARP financial bailout packages and the Occupy movement.

    note to malcolm. a prediction. anyone who starts, just starts, to get seriously close to bagging the goods on Adelson will experience a shitstorm of accussations of anti-semitism, advocacy of white slavery with some nuanced innuendos of carnal knowledge of cloven hoved beasts thrown in for good measure.

    been to Vegas lately? adleson is serious people.

  • ThomasMourne

    The obscene waste of money on the US Presidential election is difficult to understand when the successful candidate will be under the thumb of the Military-Industrial Complex, no matter what party he belongs to.

    Just look at how Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama has been forced to match George W in killing foreigners.

  • wild turkey

    “The obscene waste of money on the US Presidential election is difficult to understand ”

    Thomas. Remember the old refrain from Deepthroat, “follow the money”?

    who creates the false and fatuous sense of meaning and ‘issues’ in the campaign? the media
    a large proportion of the money goes on media spend.
    who owns the MSM?
    who owns the M-I complex?
    this whole charade is a self-financing, indeed profit making machine that successfully distracts the electorate from any objective analysis of the fundamental question of government; how is revenue to be raised and spent? who pays, and who benefits? again

    “There is no Republican Party or Democratic Party. There is just the Banks’ Party.”

  • Comrade Stalin

    I was in Vegas the other week. The Venetian and Palazzo are pretty amazing, but probably more amazing is the profitability of Sands Corp’s operations in Macau. Adelson is not to be trifled with.

    Democracy indeed in the US is broken from my point of view. I think one problem is that there’s too much of it. In places like California the ballot system effectively paralyzes the government, and a similar, more subtle kind of paralysis is effecting the federal government. It’s heading towards the territory of the French fourth republic in my view. It does not help that so many people appear to be poorly informed about how the country is run or who is running it.

    What I find the most ridiculous, in line with your “bank’s party” quote above, are the people who take sides as if the election is about a real alternative. It is very hard to think of how things would have turned out much different had McCain taken the helm in 2008 rather than Obama. I really doubt that a GOP president would have allowed the Detroit automakers to die, or would have made big cuts in public services mid-recession. Even Obama’s healthcare legislation, considered by some to be his hallmark, closely resembled the outcome of a deal in Massachusetts that involved a Republican President and a Republican governor (who is now running on a ticket opposed to the same measures at a federal level). Just about the only thing Obama has going for him is that he doesn’t have such a huge bunch of batshit crazy lunatics standing behind him.

  • New Yorker

    Comrade Stalin

    Do you think things would have turned out different if Al Gore became President rather than George W. Bush?

    There is no doubt that money has perverted US politics. A good start would to get rid of all lobbyists.

    Gerry’s analysis above is very good. But, it is early yet. Now that Romney is tied to his VP’s budget, it is likely that will have a negative effect on Romney that could be fatal in key swing states; it will also have an adverse impact for all Republicans running for office now that the Ryan budget that ends Medicare followed by Social Security is Republican party policy.

  • Greenflag

    @ wild turkey ,

    ‘There is no Republican Party or Democratic Party. There is just the Banks’ Party.”’

    Gore Vidal passed away just a couple of weeks ago. His quote above was dated 1988 . But the situation is actually much worse than Vidal’s 1988 remark . It’s no longer just the ‘banks’ -it’s the top ten banks who now own and run over 80% of all US banking led by Goldman Sachs , Citigroup , Bank of America , JP Morgan and Wells Fargo .

    Both George Bush and Obama have staffed their financial policy institutions -the Fed -the Treasury etc with ex Goldman Sachs banksters . In fact so powerful has the vampire squid of Wall St become that senior insiders refer to Goldman Sachs as virtually a branch of the Federal Government 🙁

  • Greenflag

    @ comrade stalin ,

    ‘just about the only thing Obama has going for him is that he doesn’t have such a huge bunch of batshit crazy lunatics standing behind him.’

    Indeed , And picking Ryan has just increased the supply of the ‘batshit crazies’ . Perhaps it’s a last desperate throw by the extreme right before they abandon electoral politics totally and reach for other means of winning power .

    As income inequality and the gap between the rich and most Americans widens it should’nt surprise us that USA politics may soon resemble the South American variety after all if trade follows the flag and the economy in the main determines political culture then -it can be a matter of time before ‘representative ‘democracy in the USA becomes what many already claim it has been for decades a -corporatist plutocracy 🙁

  • wild turkey

    “senior insiders refer to Goldman Sachs as virtually a branch of the Federal Government”

    GF, i have heard the federal govt referred to as a wholly owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs,

    yeah when GV came out with the banksparty remark he was trashed by the serious and mature MSM commentariat as a petulant and arrogrant crank….. and who owned and owns the MSM? hmmm

  • It is only too easy to be cynical about US politics — and Gore Vidal made a small career out of just that (though I defer to nobody in my admiration for his Narratives of Empire sequence).

    While we deplore, let us equally celebrate those seeking to improve matters.

    Elizabeth Warren, running for the Senate in Massachusetts, criticises the Dodd-Frank reform bill because it doesn’t go far enough to deal with the “too big to fail” banks. She wants to “put Wall Street reform back on the agenda” with a revised version of Glass-Steagall, to “separate high-risk investment banks from more traditional banking”. Yeah: I know — we’re going that same way, except on the Augustinian principle of “Make me good, but not just yet.”

    There there is Rep Marcy Kaptur of Ohio’s 9th, pushing her Prudent Banking bill, which has attracted nearly eighty co-sponsors — there’s life in the old New Dealers yet.

    The dirt, including how Paul Ryan finances himself, is dished at Be cheered by the $5.4 million in Ryan’s campaign account, much of it from finance, real estate and insurance: all big operators in the Wisconsin 1st — not. In passing, appreciate that Ryan spent $3,922,760 ($21.82 for each vote) on being re-elected in 2010. His only, Democrat, opponent spent $12,066 (15 cents per vote). I’m sure Greg Palast wasn’t the first to observe The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.

    Interesting that Ryan is so certain of moving into One Observatory Circle that he is still, it seems, on the ballot in his District.

  • An afterthought (apart from the — I trust — none-too-distracting habitual typo in the previous):

    For why a whole plethora of ne’er-do-wells didn’t make the Romney pick, try Carl Hiaasen’s last-but-one column.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Do you think things would have turned out different if Al Gore became President rather than George W. Bush?

    The principal difference that I can see over the past thirty years between Republicans and Democrats is around deficit spending. Republicans fund tax cuts for the wealthy by borrowing. Democrats do not cut taxes. Aside from this, I can’t see much of a difference between the parties in terms of fiscal policy.

    It’s pretty much unlikely that Iraq would have been invaded by President Gore and, as a consequence, it seems very unlikely that the deficit would have been as high as it currently is. Of course the property crash and recession would still have happened, as there is no sign that I can see that Democrats were any less inclined to inflate the property market than Republicans were.

    As for Ryan, I am looking forward to seeing people dig out his voting record in the House over the past few years. I’ll bet that his money was not always where his mouth was.

  • Brian

    Al Gore would not have invaded Iraq, and would not have passed the tax cuts. Those two things account for 25% of the deficits run up in the ensuing years. But yes, both parties were full steam ahead with the dismantling of the New Deal regulations on the financial industry that played a key role in the financial meltdown.

    Romney’s camp may take a second look at Pennsylvania, as a Judge today approved a measure aimed at making it harder for students and minorities to vote in that state.

  • New Yorker

    I think Al Gore would have prevented the AQ attack in the first place. There were many signs an alert and engaged White House would have picked up on. And that would have changed the current time greatly.

    It is unhealthy to be too concerned with the deficits of independent countries because it usually leads to bad decisions. Nobody, and I mean nobody, really knows with any certainty how big a deficit can be before a country seizes up. The UK had enormous deficits after WWII and yet it built the welfare state and general prosperity increased. Throwing about scary numbers and insinuating that government debt it just like personal debt, does nothing but lead to ruinous cuts of government spending and lower prosperity for all but the very well off.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I would not go so far as to say that Gore would have been able to prevent the attack. He did, of course, have experience in high office and he probably would have retained Dick Clarke and the other experienced anti-terror officials.

    I agree that the “deficit fetish” is over the top. It is worth adding that governments are able to borrow at interest rates which are below taxation. Providing the borrowing is funding investment, and is spent wisely (a big proviso) it makes sense to do it that way rather than raise taxes in the short and medium term.