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Election 2012: The Marginal Edges

The Outcome of a Presidential Election That’s Going to Be Close May Hinge on Parochial Issues in a Few Battleground States

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks about payroll tax cuts last week at Scranton High School in Pennsylvania. Republican presidential candidates, too, are trying to appeal to the working-class population in hopes of winning the swing state.

The race for the Republican nomination looks like it still has many more melodramatic turns to take. New and galvanizing crises at home or abroad could make surprise appearances. And the first primaries and caucuses are still a month away. But at this juncture, it’s tough to imagine the 2012 presidential campaign being anything other than very straightforward. It is, in fact, one of the few things on which Republicans and Democrats agree: In all 50 states, the election will be more than anything a referendum on the state of the economy — and a vote of confidence on whether the current chief economic steward deserves four more years. And the outcome, both parties concede, will be close.

“The economy and jobs will by far be the No. 1 issue. It’s not even close,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, which is confident that any of the potential challengers will win over the country as the better job creator.

People in President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign say they agree that jobs, the economy and their candidate’s record are what’s mainly at issue — and that the president welcomes the opportunity to convince voters he’s laser-focused on putting Americans back to work and that his ideas make him confident in the nation’s economic prospects.

That sounds easier than it will be. Though the unemployment rate dropped to 8.6 percent in November, it has nonetheless been at or above 9 percent in all but three of the past 30 months, while the European economic situation has the United States on edge and frequently sets the markets roiling. Not to mention that the bulk of Obama’s economic prescriptions are mired at the Capitol — where the Republicans who control the House and wield ample power in the Senate are set on preventing the president from claiming any real legislative victory for the next year. (An extension of the payroll tax cut and long-term jobless benefits he won last year look to be rare exceptions.)

The president’s campaign will likely keep to the theme he rolled out this fall — that he’s doing all he can in the face of a recalcitrant Congress and wants do more to promote education and cutting-edge research. The result, the president’s team hopes, is that working Americans will be grateful he’s fighting to keep helping them in hard times. At the same time, Obama will keep after Republicans as defenders of the richest Americans. It’s a message that polls well, especially in the most economically distressed states.

The end result is that re-election campaign officials are confident they’ll be able to frame their candidate as more sensitive to the plight of everyday people than his Republican opponent — who they clearly expect will be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

RNC Political Director Rick Wiley thinks Obama’s efforts aren’t going to matter because he’s in such a historically low place for an incumbent less than a year before standing for re-election. (His approval rating has been below 50 percent in every major poll since June and is now stuck around 44 percent.) Wiley sees the GOP as in a position similar to that held by Democrats when President George W. Bush tanked in popularity in 2006. “The enthusiasm that’s on the Republican side right now, that’s real,” he said.

Still, partisans on both sides are predicting only a slim margin of victory on Nov. 6, in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. That’s in part because the generally polarized state of “red and blue” America — in which Democrats dominate on the West Coast and in the Northeast, and Republicans in the vast middle — means Obama and his opponent, no matter who it is, can each count on carrying states with three-quarters of the electoral votes needed to win. The outcome, in other words, essentially has already been placed in the hands of the voters of just 12 states.

Most of them are the same battlegrounds that have been at the heart of all of the close elections of the past several decades, so both parties are well-versed in those states’ traditional political dynamics and demographics. But in the coming game of electoral inches, they are also working to identify the domestic issues at the margins that are of particular concern to a state or even the corner of a state — from ethanol across Iowa to suburban sprawl outside Denver, and from the decline in military spending facing Virginia to the role the Environmental Protection Agency might play in slowing the shale gas drilling boom in Pennsylvania.

That means policy papers for the Republican nominee and more executive orders from Obama as he travels the nation the way only a president can — as the most powerful campaigner on earth. His team insists every state will feel his campaign: operatives on the ground, neighborhood organizing teams and phone banks looking to maximize his vote next fall. Whoever claims the GOP mantle will surely make similar declarations.

But the states to watch really fit into four main categories: the traditional battlegrounds, the history-makers in the Southeast, the West and the consummate swing states. With 11 months to go before the election, the roster of battlegrounds could expand — more likely, it will eventually contract — and new parochial issues could bubble to the surface and gain outsized importance in some places. Until then, this overview of the battleground map is a place for presidential handicappers to start.

The Biggest Battlegrounds

Democrats view their predicted opponent, Romney, as particularly vulnerable to criticism on the manufacturing decline and union-rights issues that are important to the Rust Belt, which is anchored by three of the four biggest swing states: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. The Democrats point, for example, to Romney’s comments last summer knocking the president for being out of touch when he’s suggested that more young people should pursue careers in manufacturing — an implicit statement, in Democrats’ view, that the Republican is ready to give up on traditional domestic industries. But Obama’s allies say he is ready to highlight statistics illustrating how the old manufacturing base has grown a bit on his watch and has a strong future.

All of the Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to portray the president as far too heavy-handed when it comes to environmental controls. It’s a criticism they’re confident will stick particularly well in Pennsylvania, where the election often turns on the attitudes of the sort of working-class whites who dominate the rural population — thousands of whom owe their livelihoods to agricultural and energy businesses (in shale gas drilling, most recently) that can either thrive or wither depending on the EPA’s regulatory view.

Because exports are so crucial to the auto industry’s fortunes, the tilt of the national trade balance often influences voters in Michigan. And Obama finds himself in the unusual position of being able to campaign on the three export-promoting trade deals for which he recently secured broad bipartisan Congressional backing. Republicans see that outcome as eliminating a customary campaign divide, but they also believe they can campaign against Obama’s economic policies and appeal to a similar bloc of voters that would normally be energized by trade. “He’s taking a critical issue off the table that he would have normally attacked us with in a swing state,” Spicer said.

Because he’s a native son, Romney would probably put Michigan into play more easily than the other Republicans, and the president’s team is ready to target Romney for his past criticism of the federal auto industry bailout. They will trot out a Washington Post piece from “The Fact Checker” that concluded: “By most accounts, Romney’s approach would not have been viable in the depths of the economic crisis. And certainly Romney’s prediction that a bailout would lead to the auto industry’s certain demise was wildly incorrect.”

In Ohio, both sides envision a particularly intense version of the national debate over which candidate would be more likely to create the most jobs in the next four years. Democrats are confident they’ve won an early upper hand thanks to this year’s fight over collective bargaining rights for the state’s public-sector workers. It ended last month when the state voted 2-to-1 to repeal a new law limiting those rights, which had been pushed through by Gov. John Kasich and his fellow Republicans in the state Legislature. Unionized voters and activists, who had been deeply disappointed in Obama because of the health care overhaul, have now clearly been re-energized in their opposition to the GOP.

The biggest battleground of all, however, is not in the Midwest but in Florida — at 29 now the third-biggest electoral vote prize. And the outcome there will likely boil down to arguments about Medicare. Florida’s high percentage of elderly voters — most of whom almost always turn out, especially in presidential years — will get an earful from the RNC and the eventual nominee about how the president curtailed Medicare to help fund his expansion of health insurance for others. And those same voters will be inundated with ads from Democrats suggesting this year’s Republican-written House budget, with its plan to turn Medicare into a premium support system a decade from now, is fair warning about the perils of a GOP president.

“Democrats want to have that fight, but they are backing themselves into a corner. We’re more than willing to have that fight in Florida,” the RNC’s Wiley said. He defended GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan as “bold” and said Democrats haven’t offered any similarly big ideas to reform entitlement programs.

Republicans also see an opening in Ohio to emphasize the evils of what they deride as “Obamacare.” Majorities in all 88 of the state’s counties voted in November to amend the state constitution to say that Ohioans can’t be forced to abide by the new national health insurance mandate.

Where the South Will Be Won

Obama was the first Democrat to carry North Carolina since 1976 and the first to win Virginia since 1964. Were he able to secure their combined 28 electoral votes again, he could essentially write off one of the four big battlegrounds. But that’s a very tall order. The re-election team in Chicago is counting on both the continuing demographic shifts in those states and an ability to revive enthusiasm among African-Americans, who can be credited with Obama’s margins of victory in both. And all of the attention on the president that will come to Charlotte when it hosts the Democratic National Convention next September could help boost turnout across the state.

Republicans note that Obama’s margin of victory in North Carolina was his smallest of any state — just 0.3 of 1 percent, or 14,000 votes. “Most of these were first-time voters and college kids. And if they are unemployed, Obama is going to have trouble recreating that magic,” Wiley said.

The Republicans see at least as much of an edge in Virginia, labeling Obama’s 6-point victory there as little more than a fluke. And it should be readily reversible, they say, with help from — of all things — the continued budget standoff in Washington. In the wake of the special 12-member Congressional committee’s impasse over a plan for trimming the deficit, automatic annual cuts in military spending of $55 billion are set to begin after the election. But the Department of Defense looks to start making tough decisions soon, meaning potential campaign season bad news for dozens of Virginia’s defense contractors and the 228,000 civilians and uniformed people who work at the state’s 16 bases.

Especially in the Navy-centric Hampton Roads region, the GOP will be eager to pin responsibility for any cuts on Obama by asserting that his lack of leadership sealed the fiscal standoff. “That entire place, every one of those cuts, people will find their work significantly hampered,” Spicer said. “Those folks are real voters who are going to put the blame squarely on Barack Obama. ... He is going to have massive problems in Virginia.”

The president’s team will combat those attacks with frequent events hosted by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden in honor of military families. They will be focused on veterans issues, and Obama already has taken some executive action to help veterans, a tool he may deploy again before the elections.

Open Questions Out West

Both parties have put three states in the West in their must-win columns. Obama’s team is focusing on securing a disproportionate share of the Latino vote in all of them — Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado — and relying on the Democratic machine in Nevada to get out the vote for the president.

The economy has been an especially heavy burden for Nevada homeowners, one reason the president has used his executive authority to help people refinance and to revitalize neighborhoods with high numbers of foreclosures so the rest of the property values don’t plummet.

Should Romney be his opponent, Obama will attack him for saying the housing market’s swoon should be allowed to run its course without government intervention. But the GOP believes Romney would make the West plenty competitive, thanks in part to growing numbers of voters who share the candidate’s Mormon faith. Wiley points out that two Hispanic Republicans won governorships in the region two years ago — Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada — and says there is solid evidence Obama’s approval rating has eroded among Latinos, in part because that community is experiencing even higher unemployment than the rest of the nation.

Swinging for the Fences

Wisconsin and Iowa are the two swingiest states on the battleground map — with each usually backing the winner in presidential contests. Wisconsin has favored the Democrats the last six times, but only by a whisker in both 2000 and 2004, and the GOP had a particularly good year there in 2010. With a competitive open-seat Senate race, the potential recall election facing Republican Gov. Scott Walker and this year’s labor feuds as a backdrop, Wisconsin voters should expect a lot of attention from the candidates at the top of the ticket.

Iowa’s early love affair with Obama propelled his candidacy in 2008; he won a huge momentum-building victory in the caucuses and then carried the state with ease in the general election. But he’s lost a lot of support in the state, and the GOP could have an organizing advantage thanks to the yearlong campaign for the party caucuses this time.

The campaigns aren’t devoting much attention to the issue of energy in Iowa — yet. Voters there care deeply about ethanol, and if they can press Obama and his challenger to take firm stands on federal support for the corn-based fuel, they will. “This is pretty important to Iowa,” said Walt Wendland, who runs Golden Grain Energy in Mason City and is also president of the state’s Renewable Fuels Association. “The majority of Iowans will take this into consideration in the voting booth.”

The industry has no problem with Obama’s record, viewing him as properly advocating biofuel initiatives in the White House. And Newt Gingrich, because of his record as Speaker, is the only GOP aspirant “that can mention the word ethanol without looking around to see who is in the room,” Wendland said. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman are viewed with deep suspicion by ethanol refiners and corn growers.

New Hampshire is another state with a tendency to swing, especially in years when competitive primaries expose the state’s voters to both the flaws and virtues of a broad array of candidates. This time, of course, it will be the Republicans’ turn to endure all that scrutiny, even though Romney’s current home address makes him close to a favorite son. With its notorious independent streak, New Hampshire has changed its dominant political party in each of the past few wave elections — three of the four in its current Congressional delegation are Republicans, and the legislature is lopsidedly Republican as well. The Democrats will invest lots of time and money here to flip the two House seats back in their favor, and Obama could get a boost thanks to those competitive races.

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