As the East Coast recovers from Hurricane Sandy, the political news is of new states suddenly inundated with presidential campaign ads. First Wisconsin, then Pennsylvania, more recently Minnesota. Ann Romney is campaigning in Michigan; Bill Clinton in Minnesota.
All these are states Barack Obama carried by ten points or more in 2008. Why is the electoral map scrambled this year?
One reason, which I wrote about last week, is that Mitt Romney seems to be running better in affluent suburbs than have other recent Republican nominees. That’s one reason he made big gains in Florida and Virginia after the first debate — they are target states where most votes are cast in relatively affluent suburban counties.
The tightening race in Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Obama carried by 16 and ten points respectively in 2008, seems to reflect a move toward Romney in the affluent suburbs surrounding Detroit and Philadelphia.
In contrast, Romney has been struggling in Ohio, where the Rasmussen poll released Monday is the first survey in three months that shows him ahead there.
Only one-eighth of Ohio’s votes are cast in affluent suburbs. Traditional Republican strength there comes from small industrial counties where the barrage of Obama ads castigating Romney for opposing the auto bailout clearly had some impact.
Another significant shift from 2008 has come in what was once America’s Northwest — Wisconsin, Iowa, and, perhaps, Minnesota.
These three states are part of what I call Germano-Scandinavian America, settled in large part by immigrants from Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
This region, which also includes the Dakotas and Nebraska, has always been the most pacifist and isolationist part of America.
Consider two elections 44 years apart. In 1944, both Iowa and Wisconsin voted for Thomas Dewey over Franklin Roosevelt. In 1988, both these states voted for Michael Dukakis over George H. W. Bush.
In one of these elections, these states were more Republican than the nation; in the other, more Democratic. What links the two? Dewey’s party was the more isolationist in the years leading up to World War II. Dukakis was one of the most dovish nominees of a party that has been dovish ever since Vietnam.
Obama had a big comparative advantage over John McCain on war-and-peace issues in this region in 2008. Obama was an early opponent of the Iraq War. McCain strongly supported it and urged the ultimately successful surge strategy before George W. Bush adopted it in late 2006.
Obama’s comparative advantage on war-and-peace issues seems to be gone. His campaign and his convention boasted constantly of how he ordered the attack on Osama bin Laden.
The murder of our ambassador and three other Americans in Libya, and the apparent failure to respond to cries for rescue, undercuts the Obama narrative that the Muslim world is peaceful and friendly now that he is president. Turmoil and chaos abroad does not work in favor of an incumbent president.
On economic issues, Germano-Scandinavian America is not as liberal as many analysts think. Iowans like to boast that their state has the nation’s lowest rate of credit-card debt.
In Wisconsin, voters in June decisively rejected the public-employee unions’ all-out drive to recall Republican governor Scott Walker. And Minnesotans in 2010 gave Republicans big gains in the state legislature and nearly elected as governor an inept Republican over a free-spending and well-known Democrat.
Previous presidents who have been reelected have widened the electoral map by advancing policies that appealed to electoral blocs that they didn’t carry before.
Ronald Reagan gathered in the votes of white southerners and Evangelical Protestants who went heavily for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and to a considerable extent stuck with him in 1980.
Bill Clinton appealed to the affluent suburbs by supporting welfare reform, talking up anti-crime legislation, and proposing small but appealing initiatives like school uniforms.
Barack Obama and his campaign strategists did not take a similar course. The president did not change policies after his party was rebuked in the off-year elections, as Clinton did.
The Obama campaign’s strategy has accordingly concentrated on holding states he carried in 2008 rather than seeking new electoral ground.
Obama’s strategists conceded Indiana early on and North Carolina more recently. Now Florida, Virginia, and Colorado seem headed to Romney, and Germano-Scandinavian America is up for grabs. Minnesota and Pennsylvania suddenly have come into play.
Team Obama gambled on reassembling the 2008 coalition despite 2010. Maybe a losing bet.
— Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.