The White House was knocked back on its heels this week by three national polls that charted President Obama’s falling approval rating and—despite a grinding GOP nomination battle—forecast a tough general-election fight ahead. The CBS News/New York Times poll showed Obama’s approval rating drop 9 points in one month to 41 percent. The ABC News/Washington Post survey had GOP front-runner Mitt Romney beating Obama 49 percent to 47 percent; and a Bloomberg poll showed Obama and Romney tied at 47 percent, with independents supporting Romney 49 percent to 41 percent over the president. (It hasn’t helped that voters saw a 60-cent spike in average gasoline prices since late December.)
But ever since Obama’s presidential campaign launched in 2007, his strategists have derided and mocked undulating national polls. Their crucial metric has always been state polls, because states decide nominees (through delegates) and presidents (through electoral votes). And in the states that matter most—from Ohio to Virginia and beyond—President Obama is intensifying his ground game to counter the national trends. His obsessive attention to swing states tells the tale of a president in near-constant campaign mode, traveling repeatedly to tout his policies and connect with voters. Consider this roster of Obama’s presidential journeys, as monitored by CBS’s Mark Knoller: six trips to Nevada; seven to Iowa; 10 to North Carolina; 14 to Florida; 15 to Pennsylvania; and 44 to Virginia. Technically, he takes all of these trips in his official capacity as president, but so far, they appear to be working for his campaign.
Obama made a typical stop this week in Dayton, Ohio, to watch the NCAA Basketball Tournament and eat hot dogs on camera with British Prime Minister David Cameron. It was Obama’s 18th presidential visit to the Buckeye State (20 electoral votes), which he won 52 percent to 47 percent over John McCain in 2008. While the president was landing in Dayton, the campaign opened a field office there—its 11th in the state. Already, the Obama team has 100 paid staffers in Ohio. Democrats have been told that Obama will ultimately deploy 400 paid campaign workers there for the general-election season. The Republican National Committee, by contrast, finally sent two paid employees to Ohio this month.
Currently, Obama leads Romney by 12 points and Santorum by 14 in Buckeye country, and his average lead in five polls taken there this year is 3 percentage points over both. He trails well behind the GOP front-runner among white men, but the president’s ground game is growing to consolidate and hold his support—and to build on it where possible (in the Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus suburbs). “Obama will create the biggest, largest grassroots operation ever seen, bar none,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “Door-to-door persuasion and canvassing will be pivotal, especially in outreach to independent women, who will decide this election.” The campaign even sent Vice President Joe Biden to Toledo, Ohio, for a speech this week.
Virginia’s number (44 visits) needs some context. Some of the president’s visits to Northern Virginia are purely ceremonial, such as appearances at Arlington National Cemetery. Some are mandatory, such as trips to the Pentagon or CIA headquarters. Even so, Obama’s Virginia exposure and presence is staggering: Last week, for instance, he traveled to a Rolls Royce engine factory in Prince George County to herald the nation’s gain of 227,000 jobs in February. Obama appears solidly ahead in the Old Dominion. The latest poll has him up 17 points on Romney (52 percent to 35 percent) and 22 points on Rick Santorum (54 percent to 32 percent). His lead in the average of all six Virginia polls taken this year is 4 points.
Obama’s reelection campaign already has 10 offices in North Carolina, which he won by just 14,177 votes out of 4.2 million cast. Polls show that the president has been running within the margin of error for a year.
In Iowa, where a caucus victory lit the fuse to Obama’s eventual nomination, the campaign has had eight offices open since September. (For comparison, the Bush-Cheney reelection team opened one for the 2004 caucuses and four more for the general election—enough to win the state but far fewer than Obama has now.) Obama won Iowa by 10 points, but the latest poll has him trailing Romney 46 percent to 44 percent and losing to Santorum 48 percent to 44 percent. Campaign officials attribute his sagging numbers to the GOP caucuses. In pursuit of voters, Obama’s team recently acquired a new campaign headquarters in Des Moines. The previous tenant? Romney. Obama’s campaign leased the space in early January and moved in on March 4. “We’re still here, and they’re all gone,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben Finkenbinder, referring to Romney’s paid and volunteer staff.
In all of the swing states, Obama has been “here” a lot. And even when he’s not, his campaign team is. And it intends to swing still more visibly into action this summer and fall.
This article appears in the March 17, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.