Ohio is the presidential campaign’s fall blockbuster. Everybody is talking about it, and reporters keep publishing breathless reviews. But it is not the only must-watch battleground. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are looking decidedly purple, and Republican strategists are quietly hoping to surprise in these overlooked areas.
Four years ago, President Barack Obama won each of these states by double digits, and his get-out-the-vote apparatus remains strong. But after an impressive performance in the presidential debates, Mitt Romney is gaining. His poll numbers have steadily improved, and on the ground there are signs that the president’s support is dwindling.
Behind the scenes, Romney advisers are evaluating the map. Ohio remains the main prize. But should Romney lose Ohio and its 18 electoral votes, he would need victories in Florida, Virginia, and a couple of outlying states. That’s where the Keystone State and others figure into the equation.
Status: Lean Obama
Electoral votes: 10
2008 result: Obama +10
A Star Tribune poll released Sunday shows a dead heat, with Obama at 47 percent and Romney at 44 percent. This shocker elated state Republicans, who have been frustrated for decades. (Democrats have won Minnesota since 1972.) To capitalize on the momentum, the Romney campaign recently spent a small sum on television ads.
Democrats are nervous. For months, their electoral calculus has categorized Minnesota as reliably blue. This week, the Washington Post and ABC News reclassified it from “safely” Democrat to “lean Obama.” To stanch the bleeding, Democrats are spending more, and sending in former president Bill Clinton, who will stump near the Twin Cities.
Obama adviser Jim Messina is pushing back; he told reporters on Monday that the idea Romney could win Minnesota is “wishful thinking.” But Republicans’ rising expectations are grounded in more than poll numbers. As Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey reports, there are “two key referendums on the ballot,” and they are dominating the debate and stoking participation.
One measure would amend the state constitution to require photo identification for voting, and the other would constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman. Outside groups on both sides have poured in money. These referendums, more than Republican Kurt Bills’s underfunded challenge to Senator Amy Klobuchar, have Republicans enthused.
Overall, Romney’s team isn’t making an overt play for the state, but Minnesota is “long overdue” to go Republican, according to state-GOP chairman Pat Shortridge. “It has been trending right,” he says. George W. Bush came within four points of winning the state in 2000 and 2004. If Republican turnout in the Minneapolis suburbs is high, Romney has a shot.
Electoral votes: 10
2008 result: Obama +14
Before Hurricane Sandy adjusted his travel plans, Mitt Romney was set to campaign Monday in Wisconsin. He has already rescheduled for later this week — with good reason. The Badger State has suddenly emerged as a potential pickup. In the final days, look for the Romney campaign to put significant time and resources into the state.
Local congressman Paul Ryan’s inclusion on the Republican ticket has energized the Romney campaign’s Wisconsin team. Since 1998, Ryan has used his frank fiscal conservatism and even-tempered manner to win in a moderate, Democratic-leaning district. His deep support in the voter-rich region between Madison and Milwaukee should be a real force.
Romney is also relying on Republican governor Scott Walker’s political machine to boost him. Over the summer, Walker survived a recall election after enacting collective-bargaining reforms. The previous year, many of his state-senate allies beat back similar recall attempts. The constant campaigns enabled the party to improve its outreach efforts.
In the Real Clear Politics average of Wisconsin polls, the president leads by two points, but in the latest Rasmussen poll, Romney ties Obama, with each candidate earning 49 percent support. On the economy, however, Rasmussen says voters have more confidence in Romney, with the GOP nominee leading 50 percent to 44 percent.
Other variables may come into play. Former governor Tommy Thompson is locked in a tight Senate race against liberal congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, and the state’s deeply divided electorate can be unpredictable. But Romney can win here regardless — if he can put up big numbers in the affluent conservative suburbs north and west of Milwaukee.
Status: Lean Obama
Electoral votes: 20
2008 result: Obama +10
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania by ten points. It was a decisive win, and it highlighted her strength with working-class voters, the chief demographic in Pennsylvania’s central, western, and northeastern regions. Obama was later able to woo many of those Hillary supporters, but it wasn’t a warm embrace.
Four years later, many of Pennsylvania’s working-class voters, from small-town professionals to coal miners, are ready to leave the Obama camp. The sagging economy and the administration’s coal policies have angered many western Pennsylvanians, and Romney will likely see increased support in counties won by Obama, such as Cambria.
Tom Smith, a 65-year-old former Democrat and coal executive, has benefited from this changing tide. He’s running for the Senate as a Republican against Bob Casey, the Democratic incumbent, and he has used his own fortune and plainspoken personality to climb in the polls. On the trail, he is using the coal debate to attract independents.
But winning over those disaffected coal miners and small-business owners in the west won’t be enough for Romney to win Pennsylvania. The state’s large cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, are deep-blue Democratic strongholds. That leaves the Philadelphia suburbs — Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties — as the battleground.
If any Republican can win there, it’s Romney. Philadelphia suburbanites respect well-educated, business-friendly Republicans, and they were the base of the late senator Arlen Specter, a onetime moderate Republican. Statewide, the Real Clear Politics average shows Obama up by less than five points. If Romney can capture the suburbs and the coal country, he may triumph.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.