By Brendan J. Doherty
2:07 PM CST, December 13, 2012
In the aftermath of President Barack Obama's near-sweep of the critical Electoral College swing states last month, post-election analysis of the keys to his decisive victory has paid scant attention to one important factor: Mr. Obama's disproportionate focus on swing states began soon after his inauguration and continued throughout his term in office.
We expect presidential candidates to target swing states as an election draws near. Since 48 of the 50 states allocate their Electoral College votes on a winner-take-all basis, campaigns focus their scarce resources on states where the outcome is in doubt. Both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates see no electoral benefit in turning out more voters in states they are sure to win or lose, such as California or Texas. But Mr. Obama's keen attention to key electoral states began not in 2012 but in 2009.
In the first four months of his term, Mr. Obama held public events in 12 states. Nine of them were states in which he had won or lost the two-party vote by less than 10 percentage points in 2008: (in descending order of closeness) Missouri, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Arizona, Colorado and Iowa. Of the other three states Mr. Obama visited in this period, one was the electorally secure but cash-rich state of California; another was the frequent battleground state of New Mexico; and the last was his home state of Illinois. Clearly, the White House made a point of the president traveling to key electoral states early in his term in office.
Mr. Obama sustained his swing-state focus, devoting more attention to these states in each of his years in office than their populations alone would have predicted. In a June 2012 video, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina discussed 16 states that he saw as electoral toss-ups or leaning to either party at that time. Excluding Virginia, which presidents frequently visit for routine governmental business, only 36 percent of the U.S. population outside of the Washington, D.C. area lives in the remaining 15 targeted states.
According to my research, in each of his first four years in office, Mr. Obama respectively spent 49, 50, 49, and 67 percent of his days of travel in these key electoral states — a far greater share of his attention than their share of the population.
Mr. Obama is not the only recent president to disproportionately focus on swing states not just in his reelection year but throughout his term in office. Though only 32 percent of the U.S. population outside of the Washington, D.C. area lived in states that President George W. Bush's reelection campaign would consider to be swing states, he spent 42, 46, 42, and 73 percent of his days of travel in these states, respectively, in each of the four years of his first term. Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to Mr. Bush, addressed these dynamics frankly after his boss had left the White House, declaring, "If people don't like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state and see their president more."
Scholars and political practitioners alike see political payoff from presidential travel. Research has shown that while presidents often have a combative relationship with the Washington press corps, local media frequently provide more favorable coverage when a president comes to town, and that coverage spans the several days leading up to and following a visit. Under certain circumstances, a visit can spark a boost in public approval of the president in that state.
As time is a president's scarcest resource, how he allocates it reveals a great deal about his priorities. The disproportionate attention paid to swing states by both Presidents Bush and Obama in each year of their first term does not mean that that reelection was the sole or primary concern of either president. But since the rules of our electoral system incentivize presidents to pay more attention to certain states than to others, we should not be surprised to see first-term presidents who want to take their case to the people do so in the states that offer electoral reward. On Election Day, these sustained efforts appear to have paid off for President Obama.
Brendan J. Doherty is an associate professor of political science at the United States Naval Academy and author of the book, "The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign." His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. This article does not represent the views of the Naval Academy.