Democrats evaluating the 2012 map are confident President Barack Obama can win enough battleground states to earn a second term, but via a far less aggressive path than what he forged in 2008.
Party strategists, Obama aides and top Democrats see multiple routes for the president to reach the 270 Electoral College votes that he needs on Nov. 6, 2012. But some Democrats splash cold water on the big talk of outreach in all 50 states, saying it is obvious the president will focus on traditional swing territory.
It’s not the ambitious strategy that the hopeful Team Obama once showcased to psych out opponents.
In 2008, then-campaign manager David Plouffe often would boast about playing offense and seeing potential on a map that at one point even included Alaska, North Dakota and Georgia.
A Democratic official familiar with the still-forming re-election campaign told Roll Call that the focus will be on holding the 2008 pickups of Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina, winning over Latino voters in the West and flooding the traditional swing states of Ohio and Florida with resources. The Democrats feel good about winning New Mexico and Nevada, especially given the population growth among Hispanics.
While it’s early and strategies will surely evolve based on who becomes the GOP nominee, there are several paths for the president to win re-election.
As the campaign shapes up, this map translates into frequent Obama trips to the heartland and western battlegrounds and maintaining popularity with the black voters who can help Obama win Virginia and North Carolina a second time. It means the president must keep Latino voters interested in the election to help him lock down Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado — and, as is the talk in some optimistic circles, Arizona.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said that when he led the party in 2008, his strategy accounted for Obama losing Ohio and Florida but still winning the White House. Obama exceeded his expectations by running the table with swing-state victories, and Dean feels even more confident today.
“The West is a big cushion. If we win Florida, we win the whole thing, and Florida is very, very winnable,” Dean said in an interview.
The Democratic official noted that in Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina and even Iowa, Hispanic voters were “a factor” in 2008, and their numbers “are more pronounced now.”
“It won’t swing the state, but it will be a factor,” the official said.
Indeed, it’s no accident that Obama has continued to push immigration reform as a campaign issue despite remarkably little chance for its legislative success on Capitol Hill.
“We have a lot of different states that we need to win in order to get to the 270,” DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said, predicting Obama will win her home state.
“He sent a very strong signal by asking me to chair the DNC about how important a priority Florida is,” the Congresswoman said.
Despite the lousy economy and the president’s sagging poll numbers, Democrats aren’t ready to cede Ohio and even privately insist they think it’s winnable.
Dean argued that newly elected Republican governors and the budget and labor clashes in Ohio and Wisconsin will help keep those battleground states in the Obama column.
“There is going to be a huge backlash, and Obama is most likely going to win Ohio as a result of all this,” he said. “You can’t overreach in American politics, and what they’ve done is given Obama new life.”
The Democratic official believes Ohio will be competitive but not unwinnable, thanks in part to a planned large financial investment in on-the-ground talent there. Jeremy Bird, who runs Obama’s 2012 field program, served as the campaign’s 2008 state director in Ohio.
Privately, Democrats say Indiana will be much tougher to hold. Missouri is likely to come off the 2012 battleground map, given that it has only trended more conservative since Obama narrowly lost it in 2008 and Sen. Claire McCaskill will be facing a tough re-election battle and a strengthened Show-Me State GOP base.
But Democrats are putting Arizona on the 2012 map.
Obama largely avoided Arizona in 2008 because it was Sen. John McCain’s home base. In the final weekend of the campaign, when last-minute poll numbers showed Obama inching to within the margin of error, he bought some air time in Phoenix. Ultimately, the Democrat lost McCain’s home state by 9 points.
This cycle they consider it winnable, with a likely competitive race for the open Senate seat and a contentious immigration battle still igniting partisans on both sides.
“Arizona is a new state that will be in play,” the Democratic official said.
A Republican strategist who worked on the 2008 campaign said Obama was only able to expand the playing field into states such as Indiana because he was an unknown quantity.
“Now that he has a record, he’ll be judged on the economy in these battleground states. And that’s going to limit where he can play,” the strategist said.
Because of reapportionment, Obama would have a net of six fewer Electoral College votes in 2012 than he scored in 2008. Democrats say those numbers don’t worry them.
For their part, Obama’s team has publicly played up the fact that things won’t be so easy this time around, if only to help drum up grass-roots support and donations. “The electoral landscape will be more challenging,” campaign manager Jim Messina recently told supporters in a Web video.
Democrats insist there will be offices with volunteers and paid staff in all 50 states before the general election gets going. “This is the first time a candidate will go live with a field program that will have been active for four years,” the official said, referring to the work the DNC’s Organizing for America has done since Obama took office. “We’re in good shape in these swing states.”
But Dean, who built the 50-state strategy for the Democrats’ blockbuster 2006 cycle, scoffed at claims that Obama’s team will be able to blanket the nation.
“They are not pursuing a 50-state strategy in the way we did. They are giving them $5,000 a month or $7,500. We had a $60,000 budget per state for tech training and three staffers,” Dean said. “It still exists, but it’s scaled back.”
A Democratic official said the 50-state strategy “played a critical role in building the party” and noted that the DNC continued Dean’s vision but has been using different methods.
As for those red states that he flipped in 2008, Obama has remained surprisingly strong in Virginia, where voters picked a Republican governor in 2009 and ousted three Democratic House Members last fall.
Democrats chose to hold their nominating convention in Charlotte in part because of North Carolina’s battleground status. Wasserman Schultz said Wednesday during a visit to Raleigh that the Tar Heel State is the “heart and soul” of the president’s re-election campaign, according to the Associated Press.
The Republican strategist said the GOP learned something from the 2008 battle for the Democratic nomination between Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). The contest lasted through every single state’s primary, allowing the Democrats to register more voters than the Republicans, who had wrapped up their nomination before spring.
“If our primary season goes long and deep, you’ll see a GOP nominee emerge who is well-known and who has infrastructure in these states.”
A White House aide told Roll Call that it will be months before Obama mounts any substantive campaign travel. Until then, the president will “tack politics on the back end” of official business by scheduling nearby fundraisers when it makes sense.
The aide said Obama won’t “engage” the Republican candidates for the nomination until the GOP field is more set.
“We’re keeping the president on the presidential track,” the aide said. “There will be a time and a place for a more intense focus on politics.”
Steve Peoples contributed to this report.