CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Get ready for an all-out brawl in 10 too-close-to-call battleground states as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney begin a two-month sprint to Election Day.
They will deluge those states with personal visits, stacks of direct mail, automated phone calls and an unprecedented barrage of TV ads in tossup states Florida, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Michigan and Ohio. They’ll probably all but ignore the rest of America.
Florida and Ohio may matter most. No Republican has won the presidency without winning Ohio, and Florida’s 29 electoral votes – more than 10 percent of the 270 needed to win – are the biggest swing state prize.
The candidates will be dueling for support from a relative handful of undecided voters. In Ohio, for instance, RealClearPolitics’ poll average shows Obama up by 0.7 percentage points – roughly 40,000 people in a state where 5.7 million voted for president last time.
This intense dash to Nov. 6 could well be decided in a series of debates next month. The presidential candidates are scheduled to face off Oct. 3 in Denver, Oct. 16 in Hempstead, N.Y., and Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. Vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan debate Oct. 11 in Danville, Ky. All debates will run from 9-10:30 p.m. eastern time.
If Obama holds the states polls say are now firmly his, he’d have 221 electoral votes, including California’s 55 and New York’s 29. Romney is considered a safe bet so far for 191 electoral votes, notably Texas’ 38.
Strategies for easing what’s become chronic economic pain are the most prominent topic everywhere, though different states have different concerns. Nevada is stuck with a historic housing crisis. Ohio and Wisconsin are trying to revive struggling manufacturing industries. Virginia and North Carolina, once the economic jewels of the New South, have lapsed.
In a close race, other issues could be crucial. Will the unusually rigid Republican stands against abortion and gay marriage help bring conservative Virginia and North Carolina voters to the polls? Or will that also motivate enough opponents to tilt New Hampshire and Colorado to Obama? Where does immigration fit? Environment? The auto bailout?
With dispatches from McClatchy newspapers around the country, here’s a state-by-state look:
FLORIDA (29 electoral votes)
With a history of tight elections and a population that resembles the nation’s, Florida is the ultimate battleground state.
Florida reflects the nation: the southeast of the state is akin to the Northeastern U.S.; southwest Florida is tied to the Midwest, and the north of Florida is like the Deep South. Then there’s Miami-Dade, the state’s largest and most Hispanic county, which functions as a Latin American capital.
Romney and supporters have dumped an estimated $45 million on television ads in Florida just for the general election. Obama and his allies have spent about $25 million. The Republicans held their convention in the Tampa Bay area, the most hotly contested battleground region of the state.
Romney holds an edge in money, but Obama’s so-called "ground-game" organization of thousands of volunteers and nearly 100 field offices appears unmatched.
The two are essentially tied, with Obama narrowly ahead of Romney by an inside-the-error margin lead of about 2 percentage points, according to the averages of the latest reputable statewide polls. Obama won Florida by fewer than 3 percentage points in 2008, but the toll of the bad economy has hurt his standing. The unemployment rate stands at 8.8 percent, and Florida’s foreclosure rate is the third highest in the nation.
"The president can win without Florida," said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Democrat. "If he wins Florida, it’s a slam dunk."
– Marc Caputo, The Miami Herald
OHIO (18 electoral votes)
Ohio loves its reputation as one of the most unpredictable of the bellwether states, and 2012 is no exception. Obama has visited the Buckeye State 27 times since taking office in 2009, including 11 this year. Romney has been to the state 13 times since last year.
Obama and Romney are locked in a statistical dead heat in Ohio. The Columbus Dispatch recently recorded its closest presidential poll in modern history, with Romney leading Obama by only 0.22 percentage points, a figure well within the survey’s margin of error.
As in other states, the economy is the dominant issue in Ohio, and voters appear evenly divided on whether Obama or Romney would provide better leadership on the issue.
Though Ohio is a Rust Belt state, it’s doing better on jobs compared with other parts of the country. The state’s July unemployment rate was 7.2 percent – lower than the nation’s 8.1 percent jobless rate.
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, said that because of the state’s comparatively lower unemployment picture, the election could hinge on second-tier issues like the environment or abortion.
“It’s going to be very close, typical Ohio,” Green said. “Because Ohio is doing a little better in regard to unemployment, there is some room for secondary issues like the environment or same-sex marriage to matter.”
– William Douglas, Washington Bureau
NORTH CAROLINA (15 electoral votes)
Republicans were so certain of carrying the Tar Heel State last time that South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham famously boasted: “I’ll beat (multiple gold medal winner) Michael Phelps in swimming before Barack Obama wins North Carolina.”
After Obama improbably carried North Carolina in 2008, the first time since 1976 that a Democratic presidential candidate won the state, Republicans are making no such boasts this time. This summer, the state has endured a $50 million advertising barrage, with Romney and his allies outspending Obama by more than 2-to-1.
So far, the ad war has barely moved the polls, with most showing the race within the margin of error. But Democrats acknowledge they face an uphill task in a state with the fifth highest unemployment rate in the country.
Obama is counting on a massive grassroots effort and a boost from the convention that concluded Thursday in Charlotte, and from an influx of new residents from more Democratic-leaning parts of the country.
According to a Gallup survey of ideological leanings of residents in each state, North Carolina was the 22nd most conservative state in the country – making it ideologically closer to Wisconsin than to any other Southern state.
– Rob Christensen, The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.
VIRGINIA (13 electoral votes)
Virginia was long regarded as a conservative Southern state. But in 2008, Obama became the first Democratic candidate to carry the commonwealth in 44 years after putting together the broadest state political organization in modern times.
Republicans are fighting hard to get the state back, and Virginia is now among the most volatile of the swing states.
Democrats have made inroads in northern Virginia, where the population has boomed in recent years, particularly with minorities and younger voters. Republicans have electoral strength in the Shenandoah Valley and rural south and southwestern Virginia.
The key battleground areas are the outer suburbs of Washington, including Prince William and Loudoun counties; Hampton Roads, the sprawling region in southeastern Virginia and home to a large number of veterans, college students and African-Americans; and suburban Richmond.
Obama officially launched his re-election in Virginia in May. Since then, not a week goes by without a visit from their candidates or their running mates.
– Anita Kumar, Washington Bureau
NEVADA (6 electoral votes)
Four years after Obama won Nevada by more than 12 percentage points, this recession-weary state – perhaps more than any other – tests his argument that the economy has improved on his watch.
Foreclosures are rampant and the unemployment rate still hovers around 12 percent, highest in the nation. The Republican Party, outnumbered by more than 100,000 active voters in 2008, has reduced the Democratic Party’s advantage to fewer than 60,000 active voters this year.
Yet a strong following for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, evident at the Republican National Convention, and before that at a disorderly state convention, has forced Romney to work around the state party.
“It’s just a further distraction that shows there’s not a unified Republican Party,” said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The state’s growing Latino population and large Mormon population could factor heavily in the outcome, likely helping Obama and Romney, respectively. Romney is expected to carry rural areas of the state, while Obama will perform well in and around Las Vegas. The race is likely to be decided in Washoe County, including the cities of Reno and Sparks.
– David Siders, The Sacramento Bee
NEW HAMPSHIRE (4 electoral votes)
New Hampshire has voted Democratic in four of the last five presidential contests, and Obama won the state soundly in 2008. Romney, who has a summer home in the state and was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, is hoping for a hometown edge.
The Granite State’s major claim to political fame stems from its first-in-the-nation presidential primary, which provides every candidate with a roadmap of the state’s political landscape. But it’s also a tempting prize in the general election, with an electorate so closely divided that it’s almost always up for grabs.
“The numbers are close enough that turnout can make all the difference,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “This is a state where the campaigns’ ground operations, the messages, the ads, the door-to-door (campaign work), will matter because it’s such a close balance. The winner will be whoever drives out their base.”
Both campaigns made stops in New Hampshire on Friday, the first day after the conventions, underscoring the competitive nature of the race. That split is reflected by the state’s two U.S. senators: Democrat Jeanne Shaheen – elected in 2008 – spoke at Obama’s convention; Republican Kelly Ayotte – elected in 2010 – spoke at Romney’s convention.
– Lesley Clark, Washington Bureau
COLORADO (9 electoral votes)
Young voters and Latinos helped Obama win Colorado by 9 percentage points in 2008, with rapidly changing demographics turning the once reliably-Republican state into a tossup.
The state’s voters are nearly evenly split – about one-third each Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated.
Latino voters, who could make up 8 percent or more of the electorate this year, are likely to be critical to the outcome, as are suburban women. Obama did well with Latinos and women voters in 2008, said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University.
But the unemployment rate remains above 8 percent. Though “things are a little bit better off here” than in many states, Saunders said, the sputtering economy may still hurt Obama.
“It’s very much the case that the economy and jobs are the most salient issue nationally,” Saunders said. “It’s the most salient issue in Colorado, and when you’re the incumbent president, that’s yours.”
– David Siders, The Sacramento Bee
IOWA (6 electoral votes)
Both candidates made treks to Iowa on Friday on the first day after the conventions, a testament to its outsized role in the election.
In between their personal visits, the fight is playing out on the state’s television screens. Since May 1, the Obama campaign purchased more than $12 million in ad time, according to figures compiled by the National Journal, enormous spending for the relatively small media markets in the state. The Romney campaign has spent less – $7.2 million – but outside groups affiliated with Republicans have added more than $10 million.
Obama carried Iowa easily in 2008. Farm interests and alternative fuels – read ethanol subsidies and wind energy – remain important issues for the state’s voters. Some of Iowa’s Democrats also have an aggressive anti-war posture that Obama was able to tap.
Romney, though, is relatively popular with the state’s social and fiscal conservatives, and he favors federal support for ethanol production.
He was also able to build a limited state organization during the Iowa caucuses, which he narrowly won – then narrowly lost when the precinct caucus votes were double-checked – to Rick Santorum.
Recent polls suggest the race is nearly a dead heat. The key remains self-identified independents, who make up more than a third of the Iowa electorate.
– Dave Helling, The Kansas City Star
WISCONSIN (10 electoral votes)
A Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t lost Wisconsin since 1984, but that winning streak may offer little comfort to Obama. The Badger State has seen a dramatic political shift recently.
Voters swept Republicans into power in 2010, sending Ron Johnson to the Senate to replace liberal Sen. Russ Feingold, and putting Scott Walker in the governor’s office. After Walker curbed union rights in a budget fight, voters sided with Walker again in a recall vote.
“There’s been a real shift in government – a clear swing in a Republican direction, and you don’t even need Paul Ryan on the ticket. But you add him to the ticket and you’ve got an extra dimension.” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll.
Romney got a bump in the state when he chose as his running mate the young Ryan, the congressman from Janesville and chairman of the House Budget Committee, pulling within 3 percentage points after trailing by 5.
“The two-point shift in Romney’s direction is within the margin of error for the poll but suggests Ryan’s addition to the ticket may have slightly increased Romney’s chances in Wisconsin,” Franklin said.
– William Douglas, Washington Bureau
MICHIGAN (16 electoral votes)
The state that usually serves as the bellwether for American blue-collar voting will be watched unusually closely this year.
Thought to be a Democratic stronghold, it’s in play partly because of Romney’s family ties and partly because it’s shown some Republican tendencies.
Michigan elected a conservative Republican governor, Rick Snyder, in 2010. Romney is a Michigan native, from a family still well-regarded in the Detroit area. His father was the state’s governor from 1963 to 1969, his mother, Lenore, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, and his older brother Scott remains active in state Republican circles.
Mitt Romney faces a big hurdle though: The auto industry is coming back, and Obama is taking credit for the resurgence. Though the bailout program began under President George W. Bush, Obama kept it going strong and his campaign is offering constant reminders of what he did—and how Romney opposed the bailout.
In 2008, he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times headlined, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” and offered other suggestions for reviving the auto industry.
The RealClearPolitics poll average Friday showed Obama up 2.4 percentage points in the state.
– David Lightman, Washington Bureau