In 2008, due to an abundance of resources, an electorate still upset with the outgoing president and a foundation of campaign volunteers left over from primary campaigns, Obama expanded the playing field of competitive states in presidential elections. He won the Democratic states, the traditional swing states and added victories in Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, states that Republicans had carried in each of the previous seven elections.
But this year the race is reverting to a more traditional battlefield of eight true swing states and three states on the bubble that are therefore considered competitive.
The president's Electoral College aspirations probably start with 237 electoral votes including the reliably Democratic states plus the battlegrounds of Michigan and Pennsylvania, where both parties will spend money but the president has an advantage.
That means Obama will need 33 electoral votes out of eight remaining states: Colorado (9 electoral votes), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), Virginia (13) and Wisconsin (10) to get to 270. Winning Florida or Ohio would greatly improve the president's chances of getting re-elected but he could also win by running the table and securing the six smaller states. The 11th contested state - North Carolina - increasingly looks like a Romney win.
But not only has the map changed from four years ago, the entire frame of the election has as well. Obama is now an incumbent with a record to defend and he won't enjoy the same financial advantage - if any advantage at all - that he held over Arizona Sen. John McCain. With unemployment still above 8 percent nationally and an unsettled electorate, the incumbent is forced into a much different type of campaign this time around.
"In 2008, Obama's campaign was refreshing because it was about doing politics differently," McMahon said. "But inevitably every incumbent race ends up being a contrast between the incumbent and the challenger."
Democrats have chosen to attack Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, relentlessly to try to make them unacceptable to voters who may want change once again. That's why Democrats are pounding on the former governor's time at Bain Capital and turning up the heat on the House Budget chairman's fiscal policy blueprint.
"Go after his integrity so that people don't trust him on the economy," one Democratic strategist explained about the Democrats' not-at-all-veiled strategy. "That's why it's so ugly." But that type of campaign can make Obama look like a typical politician and might turn off needed supporters.
Young people were critical to the president's election four years ago. According to the exit polls, voters age 18-29 made up about the same percentage of the electorate as usual (18 percent) in 2008, but they voted overwhelmingly for Obama. He won 66 percent of younger voters compared to Sen. John Kerry's 54 percent just four years before.
But it's far from certain that the youth vote will be as enthusiastically in Obama's corner this year. Pounding Romney for unreleased tax returns may be an effective strategy, but it's tougher to see pop stars writing songs based on this year's rhetoric.
Young people comprise just one element of the president's hoped-for winning coalition, which also includes black and Hispanic voters, and women.