Why the Campaigns Should Pay Attention to More Than 9 or 10 States

Obama's post-convention bounce showed what could happen if the national campaigns addressed the entire nation as a matter of course.

epluribusunumDetail from "The Apotheosis of Washington," U.S. Capitol rotunda (GreatSeal.com)

One of the less outrage-generating turns of phrase in Mitt Romney's secretly recorded May remarks in Boca Raton involved his campaign's state-by-state strategy.

"Florida will be one of those states that is the key state," he told the assembled big-dollar donors at the fundraiser. "And so all the money will get spent in 10 states, and this is one of them."

It's a remark that's gotten almost no attention, because it fits so perfectly with the conventional wisdom of this election cycle: Only nine or 10 key swing states matter. "The 2012 election is likely to go down in history as the one in which the most money was spent reaching the fewest people," the New York Times' Jeremy Peters aptly summarized the campaigns' approach in June, discussing their effort "to reach just 1.4 million registered voters" in nine states.

But as anyone with any sense of American media today knows, this is not how culture and opinion get created in a massive, populous, and networked country. Sure, if you want to sell regional futon ads, you go to your local community paper or alternative weekly. But if you want to promote a major cultural happening, you make damn sure thought leaders in the major creative capitals of the country buy in to what is going on.

The American people may be separated by geography, but they're not nearly as isolated from each others' opinions as they were even a dozen years ago. They have Facebook friends across the country, even the world. Social sharing and online video sites mean that nothing stays isolated for long, and the distinctive worldviews of specific micro-communities can crash against wildly different ones with shocking rapidity. That's what happened when a group of mysterious filmmakers in California put together an anti-Muslim flim clip -- which went on to roil the Middle East once it was translated and shared online in Egypt and elsewhere. Negative local news stories become national and even international ones with a speed and power that have upended the old rules of politics. This has been going on a while now.

The opinion-creation complex goes the other way, too. Many of those who read newspapers read the Washington Post and the New York Times online rather than their faded regional publications; the vast majority of online news audiences for these major publications lives outside the traditional geographic boundaries of the papers. "The Washington Post circulates in print only around Washington, D.C., but way over 90 percent -- I think over 95 percent of our Internet audience is outside Washington, D.C.," Washington Post Company CEO Donald Graham told a technology conference in July.

Obama can move his base from Washington, the Pew Forum on Religious Life found in August. While there was little evidence that the president was able to change public opinion around the country by coming out for gay marriage, there was a strong suggestion in the polling data that he was able to move Democrats since announcing his newly "evolved" position in May:

Obama's announcement may have rallied the Democratic base -- particularly liberal Democrats -- to the issue. Democrats supported gay marriage by a 59% to 31% margin in April -- that stands at 65% to 29% today. Most of this shift has come among liberal Democrats, 83% of whom now support gay marriage, up from 73% earlier this year. Attitudes have not shifted among any other segment of the public following Obama's announcement ....

Similarly, the well-programmed three-day Democratic National Convention in Charlotte earlier this month seems to have taken care of the Democrats' problem with its base, successfully firing up the rank-and-file. Nate Silver reported that polls since the convention show a decline in the enthusiasm gap between the parties. As the Daily Caller described a Fox News poll showing the same:

Asked in August how important it was that the candidate they supported won the election, 64 percent of Romney supporters called it extremely important, compared to just 54 percent of Obama supporters. Thirty-seven percent of Obama supporters called it "very important," as did 28 percent of Romney supporters. Ads by Google

But in the days following the convention -- Fox News polled from Sept. 9 through Sept. 11 -- 62 percent of Obama supporters said it was "extremely important" that the president be re-elected. The percentage of Romney supporters saying his victory was "extremely important" didn't budge.

The latest numbers suggest that Obama supporters were excited enough by the Democratic convention to help close the enthusiasm gap that has existed for several months.

It sounds obvious to say it, but Obama's blue-state base can be reached through blue-state communications channels. His base is the people who live in cities and who live in cultural communities that talk to each other, Chicago to New York to Charlotte to Miami to Los Angeles. And its enthusiasm can be infectious, transforming the narrative of the contest. If Obama can call his one-time supporters off the sidelines in blue states, and get them donating and chattering and creating free media and signing up to volunteer at near 2008 levels, he can change perceptions of his candidacy in purple states -- and even red ones. Romney could benefit as well from targeting blue voters in blue states -- because if he can get some of them on his side, he can use their cultural power to woo that central, centrist 5 to 10 percent he needs to win and which has continued to elude him.

But it means recognizing that we are not a conservative America and a liberal America, but a United States of America. Obama knew that in 2004. He knew it in 2008.

But this year, somehow, neither side of the aisle seems to remember.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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