Obama really likes the states he visits, especially for 2012

McClatchy NewspapersApril 7, 2011 

WASHINGTON — This week, as he launched his re-election campaign, President Barack Obama arranged to visit three of his favorite states: Pennsylvania, New York and Indiana.

They all voted for him in 2008, and he's courting them heavily for 2012.

He made two of the three stops as planned, though Indiana will have to wait. Hoping to avert a looming government shutdown, Obama postponed his Friday trip to the Hoosier state, his fifth visit as president.

From the time he took office in January 2009 through the end of March, Obama visited 38 states — some far more often than others, with the most-visited tending to be crucial to his 2012 re-election strategy — according to a McClatchy analysis of the 317 documented events in that period.

Of the dozen states that Obama has yet to visit as president, all voted Republican in the last presidential election except for tiny, and reliably Democratic, Vermont, which has only three electoral votes.

Many of Obama's visits to red states have come in the context of tragedies or deaths that held the nation's attention: Oil spill or hurricane-related concerns required presidential trips to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. The president's two visits in 2010 to West Virginia were memorial services for miners and the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd.

When Obama spoke in Republican-voting Alaska in late 2009, it was at a military base on his way to Asia. His family's trip to Yellowstone National Park counts as a visit to red-state Wyoming.

However, Obama also has been strategically investing time in red states he'd like to put in play in 2012, such as Missouri (nine events), Texas (six events) and Arizona (five events).

The states the president visits most often tend to share common traits: They supported him in 2008. They're among the biggest states, with many electoral votes. They're important swing states or major donor bastions. Or they're home to Democratic politicians who needed a boost from Obama in last year's midterm elections.

"The president can always find a very good reason to go to just about any state in the country for a legitimate governing purpose," said Brendan Doherty, a scholar with the White House Transition Project, a group of scholars who assist in facilitating presidential transitions. He's made detailed studies of presidential travel since Jimmy Carter. "But it does seem like President Obama tends to find those in places like Ohio and Indiana."

Previous presidents also balanced politics with governing when it came to their domestic trips. Obama is average in terms of how many states he got to in his first two years, between Ronald Reagan's 30 states and George H.W. Bush's 45. Of recent presidents, Doherty said, President George W. Bush spent the most time visiting states he'd narrowly won or lost. He won re-election in 2004.

Before this week, Obama had spent at least 19 days and held 34 events in New York; 13 days and 15 events in Ohio; 11 days and 18 events in California; 10 days and 18 events in Florida; and 10 days and 14 events in Pennsylvania. All are big electoral-vote states that every Democrat targets in presidential elections.

He's also held 31 events in Virginia and 21 in Maryland, but that's largely because they're so close to the White House.

Pennsylvania and Indiana, chosen for this week's visits, were swing states key to the president's 2008 election.

New York, where he spoke Wednesday, is home to a Democratic majority, 29 electoral votes and Wall Street financiers, whom he's alternately scolded and tapped for donations.

Indiana's a little lower down the return-trip rankings — it has only 11 electoral votes, considerably fewer than the other frequent stopover sites do. Still, they're in play.

"It's probably not just the Hoosier hospitality that draws him back," Indiana Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb said.

Holcomb said it was naive to think that it was simply Indiana's manufacturing and automotive sectors that kept pulling Obama back.

Obama "flipped a red state blue" in 2008, Holcomb said, when it was easier to define himself through his visits and campaign war chest. "It'll be tougher to win Indiana a second time around," he said, citing the struggling economy, rising national debt and the president's difficulty in transforming the culture of Washington.

Obama's done five events in Iowa as president; the state's worth only six electoral votes, but it came through for him in the nomination caucuses and the general election.

His 14 events in Illinois, his home state, largely were fundraisers.

North Carolina, where Obama squeaked out a groundbreaking win in 2008, has gotten four visits. The president also steered the 2012 Democratic National Convention there, to Charlotte.

But South Carolina, where black Democrats' support for Obama over Hillary Clinton proved crucial to his nomination, has yet to see him as president. In general elections, the Palmetto State is decisively Republican.

The other red states that Obama has yet to visit are Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Idaho and Utah.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, the only Democrat in South Carolina's congressional delegation, said he'd refrained from pressuring the president to visit his state because "it would be selfish to ask him to come to South Carolina when the political calculations are what they are."

That's about to change. After the state party's convention at the end of this month, Clyburn said, South Carolina Democrats will launch an effort to rebuild their party, and he'll urge Obama to help with a visit.

"We can say to President Obama, 'The chances are very remote you will win South Carolina, but we're hopeful just as we were able to kick-start your campaign . . . you can help us kick-start the rebirth of the Democratic Party in South Carolina.' "

Clyburn's barber, Herbert Toliver, the owner of Toliver's Mane Event in Columbia, said he'd be "disappointed" if Obama didn't get to South Carolina in the next year, but he's not going to second-guess him. "If he cannot get here, I'm going to love him and support him anyway," said Toliver, who's 65. "He has a very, very tough job to do.

"When I see him in other parts of the country, other parts of the world, I say, 'Well, there's a reason why he is where he is, trying to get done what he needs to get done.' He's not wasting our taxpayers' money to be going places just for the foolishness of it. He's a seriously hardworking individual and I still believe in him."

White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that a "combination of factors" went into deciding where the president would go, but that the central factor was "finding an interesting or particularly illustrative" community or business that reinforced a message about Obama's priorities.

"The president believes that a critical part of his job is to get outside of Washington, D.C., travel across the country and talk to the American people about the priorities he's pursuing," Earnest said.

The 317 venues that McClatchy documented featured Obama speeches about jobs, the economy, war, health care, energy, the auto industry and education; tours of factories and schools; commencements and eulogies; private meetings disclosed by the White House; unscheduled public appearances at restaurants and other venues; and at least 90 fundraising events for Democrats.

Sometimes ideas for locations come from inside the White House, other times from industry or from locals in cities that want the president to visit.

Presidential trips are coordinated among the president's senior advisers, political and scheduling offices, and any group that's benefiting from a fundraising appearance. On trips that include political stops, there's a government-set formula for apportioning costs between taxpayers and political committees.

Doherty, who's writing a book that looks at presidential travel through the lens of balancing campaigning and governing, said Obama's patterns were typical.

Since Carter, presidents from both parties have tended to overlook the smallest states and to spend a lot of time in California and even more in nearby New York, because of fundraising and the concentration of important events, including gatherings of the United Nations.

If past presidents' patterns are any guide, the electoral nature of Obama's trips should become more pronounced soon, Doherty said: "What usually happens is a ramping up of targeted travel to key electoral states in the third and fourth years and a big focus on fundraising."

METHODOLOGY:

McClatchy's analysis combined scholar Brendan Doherty's travel tabulations for Obama's first two years; Obama's public schedule for this year through March, posted on the White House website; and print-news pool reports, which sometimes include events that aren't listed on the official schedule. When two related events were at the same facility, such as a tour of a school followed by remarks at the school, they were counted as one; however, events at multiple locations in the same city on the same day were counted separately.

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