The Obama campaign thinks it can again win electoral votes beyond the traditionally Democratic states. Easier said than done.

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George E. Condon Jr.
Oct. 20, 2011, 11:30 a.m.

There were plenty of wry smiles, know­ing nods, and arched eye­brows in Wash­ing­ton when Barack Obama’s cam­paign team let it be known in 2008 that it would spend money in, and send Obama to, In­di­ana and Vir­gin­ia. Re­pub­lic­an strategists were de­lighted to see op­pon­ent re­sources mis­spent, and wor­ried Demo­crat­ic strategists lob­bied to di­vert time else­where. After all, neither state had voted for a Demo­crat for pres­id­ent in the 10 elec­tions since 1964. It was dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that either was poised for a re­versal. Al­most as odd, an­oth­er state that found it­self get­ting un­ex­pec­ted at­ten­tion — North Car­o­lina — had deser­ted the GOP only once in that span, when it voted for South­ern­er Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The Obama man­tra was “ex­pand the map,” which meant chal­len­ging Re­pub­lic­ans on what once seemed like their turf but now showed signs of change — par­tic­u­larly grow­ing di­versity and in­creas­ing edu­ca­tion among white voters. That helps ex­plain the cam­paign’s ex­pan­sion in­to Col­or­ado, Nevada, and New Mex­ico, too. It also sym­bol­ized the con­tin­ued evol­u­tion of the Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion away from white, blue-col­lar, and seni­or voters who dom­in­ate tra­di­tion­al Mid­west­ern swing states to­ward minor­it­ies, youths, and well-edu­cated whites in parts of the Sun Belt. When the votes were coun­ted, the strategy res­ul­ted in three states and 39 more elect­or­al votes in Obama’s fold.

Four years later, “ex­pand the map” is again the man­tra. It is why the pres­id­ent spent three days this week on a bus trav­el­ing the back roads of North Car­o­lina and Vir­gin­ia. And it is why the pres­id­ent’s team is look­ing for new states to pry from the Re­pub­lic­an base in 2012. This time, they have Ari­zona and Geor­gia in their sights.

But it won’t be easy. If polit­ic­al in­siders thought suc­cess was im­prob­able in 2008, they privately view these new chal­lenges as closer to im­possible. Nev­er­the­less, hav­ing proved the in­siders wrong once, the Obama brain trust in Chica­go is not in­clined to listen. “The Demo­crats can nev­er go back to the elect­or­al map of 2000 or 2004, where the whole cam­paign comes down to one or two states,” said Ben LaBolt, the cam­paign’s spokes­man. “We’re work­ing to chart mul­tiple paths to vic­tory.” LaBolt doesn’t have to spe­cify those “one or two states.” Every­body knows they are Flor­ida and Ohio. If Al Gore in 2000 or John Kerry in 2004 had won either one, he would have be­come pres­id­ent. Obama is de­term­ined not to let his fate rest on those two states.

The com­mit­ment shows in the bus tour and the fre­quent pres­id­en­tial vis­its. It shows in the se­lec­tion of North Car­o­lina to host the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion. And it shows in the cam­paign of­fices opened more than a year be­fore the elec­tion. Already op­er­at­ing are of­fices in Raleigh, Char­lotte, and Greens­boro in North Car­o­lina; Phoenix and Tuc­son in Ari­zona; In­di­ana­pol­is in In­di­ana; At­lanta in Geor­gia; and Rich­mond in Vir­gin­ia. New­port News will fol­low there soon.

This time, the skep­tics are par­tic­u­larly doubt­ful about the Peach State (even if the demo­graph­ics are slowly chan­ging), be­cause it went for John Mc­Cain 52 per­cent to 47 per­cent over Obama. “Geor­gia is a fool’s er­rand,” said vet­er­an Re­pub­lic­an strategist Charlie Black, who ac­know­ledged that Ari­zona makes more sense with fa­vor­ite son Mc­Cain no longer atop the tick­et. Black also sees Vir­gin­ia as “a true swing state these days.”

Merle Black, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at Emory Uni­versity and a lead­ing ex­pert on South­ern polit­ics, like­wise won­ders about adding Geor­gia to the tar­get list. Demo­crats are cor­rect that demo­graph­ic changes over the last dec­ade have altered the state’s elect­or­ate, he says: It is more Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, more Asi­an, and more Latino than be­fore. Some Demo­crat­ic strategists be­lieve that Obama could win Geor­gia if he gets heavy minor­ity turnout and man­ages to win at least 25 per­cent of the white vote. That will be dif­fi­cult, however.

In 2008, only 23 per­cent of whites in Geor­gia voted for Obama, the fourth-low­est sup­port in the coun­try, be­hind only Alabama (10 per­cent), Mis­sis­sippi (11 per­cent), and Louisi­ana (14 per­cent). That was a far cry from the suc­cess that Obama had with whites in Vir­gin­ia (39 per­cent) and North Car­o­lina (35 per­cent). “It is hard to think that Obama has be­come more pop­u­lar with white voters in Geor­gia than he was three years ago, giv­en that the eco­nomy is in ter­rible shape,” Merle Black said. Demo­crats suffered their worst-ever thrash­ing in Geor­gia in 2010, he poin­ted out. “The Demo­crats lost the white con­ser­vat­ives here a long time ago. Now they’ve lost the white mod­er­ates. So they’re down to white lib­er­als and minor­it­ies.”

The pic­ture is much less bleak in North Car­o­lina and, par­tic­u­larly, in Vir­gin­ia, which long­time Demo­crat­ic strategist Tad Dev­ine calls “very much in play for the pres­id­ent.” It is crit­ic­al for Obama to avoid “get­ting backed in­to some Elect­or­al Col­lege corner where it is all Ohio or it is all Flor­ida,” he said. “The im­port­ant thing for the pres­id­ent and his team is to make sure they have as many states as pos­sible in play for as long as pos­sible.”

But Dev­ine wor­ries the Re­pub­lic­ans will not be caught as un­der­fun­ded as they were in 2008. Charlie Black es­tim­ated that the Mc­Cain cam­paign and the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee spent $450 mil­lion that year, while Obama and the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee spent $750 mil­lion. In 2012, in­de­pend­ent com­mit­tees have vowed to raise enough money to al­low the GOP nom­in­ee to counter Obama’s moves in­to un­ex­pec­ted states. It is just one more chal­lenge to Obama’s ef­forts to ex­pand the map. But don’t count on it sway­ing the team in Chica­go. They can’t wait to prove the ex­perts wrong again.