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OFF TO THE RACES

A New Mousetrap

The term "50-state strategy" is getting tossed around pretty liberally these days, particularly by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

The campaign is, of course, promoting the impression that he will be competing, more or less, in every state in the union in contrast with the norm of a dozen or so states getting virtually all of the attention.

 

Few would deny the proposition that the footprint of this election will be broader than in 2000 and 2004 -- with more states in play, particularly in the Southwest -- than we are used to.

Instead of "Florida, Florida, Florida" or "Ohio, Ohio, Ohio," as NBC's Tim Russert said in 2000 and 2004, respectively, he could be saying "Colorado, Colorado, Colorado."

But even with the Colorados and Nevadas and Virginias becoming the 2008 campaign's frontier states, will either campaign truly employ a "50-state strategy?" Don't bet on it.

 

When Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean began talking up his party employing a 50-state strategy three years ago, many scoffed.

Then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer of New York had their own missions to capture majorities in their respective chambers.

They wanted to allocate resources to those seats where they had the best chances of winning, the opposite of a 50-state strategy, and predictably derided the Dean effort.

But the mission of the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate was to build and nurture a national party, and his timeline existed well beyond November 2006.

 

As the pro-Democratic wave developed and many more states came into play in 2006, the wisdom of Dean's approach seemed more clear. He had his job and they had theirs.

But presidential campaigns are pass-fail, and pass is defined as winning 270 electoral college votes. Ask former Vice President Al Gore about moral presidential victories.

With 270 electoral votes the definition of success, "50-states" isn't a strategy, it's a cliche.

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Sure, a candidate might give some modicum of attention to all 50 states; the appearances are important. But if that candidate spends significant resources in the 20-25 states that are a lock for him or his opponent, he will look pretty foolish when his top priority states run shy on money down the final stretch.

Having said all of that, there has been some talk of the Obama campaign making, at least for a time, some national network advertising buys, which I think makes some sense. The simple fact is that as the number of states in play gets up toward 20, the race is defined more by national polls.

That is, the preferences of voters in solidly Democratic or Republican states matters just as much as the preferences of voters in swing states. Until the final few weeks, perception does help shape the reality.

Probably one of the most disputed points of this year's electoral map will be whether Democrats are actually competitive in any Southern states beyond Florida, which hasn't really been a Southern state in decades, and Virginia, which has become more of a Mid-Atlantic state.

While Arkansas has long been the least Republican state in the true South, some partisans are suggesting that Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee might be in play.

Personally, I am skeptical that North Carolina or Tennessee will get particularly close and find the idea that Georgia, Louisiana and particularly Mississippi will get close extremely dubious ideas.

Obviously some supporters are placing great weight on a supercharged black turnout on behalf of Obama.

This is a fair assessment, though it implies that black turnout has been low when the fact is that it doesn't trail white turnout by much.

While Hispanic turnout is historically low, that is not usually the case with blacks.

But there is a second dynamic that many seem to overlook.

There has been a long-standing pattern across the South that the greater the black population in an area, the more racially polarized the voting is.

In other words, the higher the proportion of black voters in an area, the less likely that whites are to vote for the same candidate.

Sure, Obama might turn out the historically strong black vote in Mississippi. But don't expect that his share of the white vote will go up a great deal higher than the 40 percent that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., received in the Magnolia State four years ago.

The fact is that in many of these states, if the political conditions are sufficient for Obama to win even these scarlet red states, he won't need them.

Current polling suggests that while there are new places where he runs tantalizingly close compared to previous Democratic nominees, there are also other places that seem just as resistant to his charms.

This is not just in Florida and Ohio, either.

He might have to fight even harder than Gore or Kerry did to hang onto Michigan and Pennsylvania. Those are not cheap states, by any means. And Obama will need them to compete.

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