Romney Expands the Battlefield: Clever Sucker Punch or Desperate Hail Mary Pass?

In American Football, the Hail Mary pass “refers to any very long forward pass made in desperation with only a small chance of success, especially at or near the end of a half”, according to Wikipedia. With the final seconds of the game ticking away, and the team in possession just a few points down but a long way from the goal line, the quarterback will launch the ball as far down the pitch as he can, in the hope that one of his receivers will latch on to the ball and find a route through the tackles of the defensive secondaries into the endzone. While the probability of success is low, many of football’s most legendary games culminated in a wide receiver jumping through a forest of defenders’ hands for a touchdown.

While there are the usual theories from the trailing side that the polls are all wrong, and Mike Smithson of reminds us that the theories are sometimes right, a straight reading of the polls shows Mitt Romney still trailing in the states that matter, with his momentum stalled or even reversed, and just five days left to turn things round. As well as public polling, both campaigns will have an array of privately commissioned polls as well as an ever more sophisticated capacity to capture and analyse data coming back from volunteers manning the phones or knocking the doors.

Both campaigns had, since at least July, decided to fight the election in the same nine swing states, and with the arguable exception of New Hampshire, all of these states have been polled into oblivion. Whatever they’re saying publicly, both campaigns will have come to conclusions about how likely they are to win each of them, and it’s unlikely that the conclusions will be different for Team Romney than they are for Team Obama. With every day that passes, it’s harder and harder to see a path to victory for Romney out of these nine states.

This explains Romney’s decision to start running ads in Pennsylvania (for the first time since July) and Minnesota (for the first time full stop), backed by serious third party money from Republican Political Action Committees. It doesn’t look like a prepared move – Romney’s ground operation in both states will be minimal, and a serious effort to catch Obama off guard would have begun at least a few weeks ago. Figuratively speaking, Mitt has wound his arm back, hurled the ball down the pitch as far as he can, and is probably murmuring a Mormon Hail Mary.

That doesn’t mean this is dumb strategy. Anything but. After Romney’s first debate surge, polling in both Pennsylvania and Minnesota started showing a tight race. While neither state has voted for a Republican for at least 24 years, Bush Jnr. lost these states by only a narrow margin in both of his elections. Oregon and Michigan, another two states which have voted for every Democrat since Clinton, but which W fought hard and lost only narrowly, have also tightened dramatically in the last few weeks.

And the environment in these states is different from the nine states acknowledged to be the battleground. In the big nine, Obama spent the summer pounding Romney with a barrage of negative ads, defining him successfully as an unprincipled vulture capitalist and flip-flopper. Those ads made a difference. Look at how Romney’s lead has remained thin in North Carolina, where Obama spent heavily on attack ads, in comparison with the other states which were extremely close in 2008 – Indiana, Missouri and Montana – where Romney is heading for blowout wins. (This also goes a long way to explaining the alleged ‘gap’ between national and swing state polling.)

In Pennsylvania, Obama’s ad campaign was relatively light to begin with and stopped in late July when it was clear that Romney had given up in the Keystone State. In Minnesota, Obama never even started advertising. Romney is less defined in these states, and voters should be more receptive to him selling his story positively.

Advertising in these states will also be a lot cheaper than in the big nine. In the battlegrounds, spot prices for ads will be through the roof in the unlikely event they are still available, while in Pennsylvania and Minnesota, Romney will find space between the commercials for relatively impecunious downballot races.

It still feels not only like it’s too late, but in the sense that a serious ground operation can’t be conjured from nothing in six days, also too little. This might have been a genius move had it been put into place in the week after the first debate, when Mitt had momentum and time. But you never can tell how the late deciders might break on polling day. Mitt is clearly down, but down by less than a touchdown.

It is also a move that may have been obviated had Obama kept even a skeleton advertising campaign in place in these states into the fall. But David Axelrod’s strategy was always to build a firewall in GOP-leaning swing states and let Romney spend money and energy trying to fight his way through it. Romney was campaigning in Florida again yesterday, a state that should already be locked down if he has any hope of winning. Five Florida polls were released yesterday, two showing Romney ahead, two showing Obama ahead and one tied. It looks like David Axelrod’s strategy is working.

While still a regular feature of college football, it is now rare indeed for a crunch NFL playoff game to be won by a Hail Mary.

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