Why the Campaigns Should Pay Attention to More Than 9 or 10 States
Sep 20 2012, 6:00 PM ET
Obama's post-convention bounce showed what could happen if the
national campaigns addressed the entire nation as a matter of course.
One of the less outrage-generating turns of phrase in Mitt Romney's
secretly recorded May remarks in Boca Raton involved his campaign's
"Florida will be one of those states that is the key state," he told the
assembled big-dollar donors at the fundraiser. "And so all the money
will get spent in 10 states, and this is one of them."
It's a remark that's gotten almost no attention, because it fits so
perfectly with the conventional wisdom of this election cycle: Only nine
or 10 key swing states matter. "The 2012 election is likely to go down
in history as the one in which the most money was spent reaching the
fewest people," the New York Times' Jeremy Peters aptly summarized
the campaigns' approach in June, discussing their effort "to reach just 1.4 million registered voters" in nine states.
But as anyone with any sense of American media today knows, this is not
how culture and opinion get created in a massive, populous, and
networked country. Sure, if you want to sell regional futon ads, you go
to your local community paper or alternative weekly. But if you want to
promote a major cultural happening, you make damn sure thought leaders
in the major creative capitals of the country buy in to what is going
The American people may be separated by geography, but they're not
nearly as isolated from each others' opinions as they were even a dozen
years ago. They have Facebook friends across the country
even the world. Social sharing and online video sites mean that nothing
stays isolated for long, and the distinctive worldviews of specific
micro-communities can crash against wildly different ones with shocking
rapidity. That's what happened when a group of mysterious filmmakers in
California put together an anti-Muslim flim clip -- which went on to
roil the Middle East once it was translated and shared online in Egypt
and elsewhere. Negative local news stories become national and even
international ones with a speed and power that have upended the old
rules of politics. This has been going on a while now.
The opinion-creation complex goes the other way, too. Many of those who read newspapers read the Washington Post
and the New York Times
online rather than their faded regional publications; the vast majority
of online news audiences for these major publications lives outside the
traditional geographic boundaries of the papers. "The Washington Post
circulates in print only around Washington, D.C., but way over 90
percent -- I think over 95 percent of our Internet audience is outside
Washington, D.C.," Washington Post Company CEO Donald Graham told a technology conference
Obama can move his base from Washington, the Pew Forum on Religious Life found in August
While there was little evidence that the president was able to change
public opinion around the country by coming out for gay marriage, there
was a strong suggestion in the polling data that he was able to move
Democrats since announcing his newly "evolved" position in May:
Obama's announcement may have rallied the Democratic base --
particularly liberal Democrats -- to the issue. Democrats supported gay
marriage by a 59% to 31% margin in April -- that stands at 65% to 29%
today. Most of this shift has come among liberal Democrats, 83% of whom
now support gay marriage, up from 73% earlier this year. Attitudes have
not shifted among any other segment of the public following Obama's
Similarly, the well-programmed three-day Democratic National Convention
in Charlotte earlier this month seems to have taken care of the
Democrats' problem with its base, successfully firing up the
rank-and-file. Nate Silver reported that polls since the convention show a decline in the enthusiasm gap between the parties. As the Daily Caller described a Fox News poll showing the same:
It sounds obvious to say it, but Obama's blue-state base can be reached
through blue-state communications channels. His base is the people who
live in cities and who live in cultural communities that talk to each
other, Chicago to New York to Charlotte to Miami to Los Angeles. And its
enthusiasm can be infectious, transforming the narrative of the
contest. If Obama can call his one-time supporters off the sidelines in
blue states, and get them donating and chattering and creating free
media and signing up to volunteer at near 2008 levels, he can change
perceptions of his candidacy in purple states -- and even red ones.
Romney could benefit as well from targeting blue voters in blue states
-- because if he can get some of them on his side, he can use their
cultural power to woo that central, centrist 5 to 10 percent he needs to
win and which has continued to elude him.
Asked in August how important it was that the candidate
they supported won the election, 64 percent of Romney supporters called
it extremely important, compared to just 54 percent of Obama supporters.
Thirty-seven percent of Obama supporters called it "very important," as
did 28 percent of Romney supporters.
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But in the days following the convention -- Fox News polled from Sept. 9
through Sept. 11 -- 62 percent of Obama supporters said it was
"extremely important" that the president be re-elected. The percentage
of Romney supporters saying his victory was "extremely important" didn't
The latest numbers suggest that Obama supporters were excited enough by
the Democratic convention to help close the enthusiasm gap that has
existed for several months.
But this year, somehow, neither side of the aisle seems to remember.