President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will feel at home when they go to Florida for their final debate on Monday. That's a state that has seen a lot of both candidates. But when their second debate concluded on Tuesday night, the two men sure left New York quickly. The president didn't even spend the night and Romney was up at the crack of dawn to flee. After all, there was a campaign out there that demanded their return. And other than on a debate stage, it's certainly not being waged in New York, the nation's third most populous state. Or in California or Texas, the two biggest states. That's 82.8 million Americans who are just bystanders in the most hotly contested presidential election in a decade.
Obama raced to Iowa and Ohio the day after the debate; Romney scurried off to Virginia. They were wooing voters in states totaling only 22.7 million residents, barely a quarter of the Big Three's population. But their clout is bigger than their numbers; they — along with voters in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, and North Carolina — are Campaign 2012.
Much has been written about the hardy band of "battleground states." But little has been written about why the American electoral map has shrunk so dramatically, what it tells us about the nation and what it means for future elections.
That shrinkage has been historic. Not since 1980 has any election seen more than 10 states with winning margins under 3 percent. Not since 1992 has any election seen more than 11 states finish with margins under 5 percent. In 2008, only six states were as close as 5 percent. Contrast that to 1960. Seventeen states that year were decided by less than 3 percent; 20 were less than 5 percent; 34 were under 10 percent. And it showed in the candidates' travel itinerary. Richard Nixon campaigned in all 50 states; John F. Kennedy campaigned in 45.
No chance of that with Obama and Romney. Since June 5, the last big day of primaries, each candidate has campaigned in only 10 states. They have visited other states — Obama a total of 22, Romney a total of 32. But those other visits were not campaign stops; they were predominantly fundraising hits. The same disparity exists in spending by the campaigns and their affiliated groups. NBC reported this week that ad spending has crossed the $600 million threshold, with more than half of that spent in just the three states of Florida, Ohio, and Virginia.
Younger voters could be excused if they thought the small map and the very idea of "battleground states" are long-established parts of American political campaigns. They aren't. Through the 1988 election, what was embedded in conventional wisdom was the notion of a Republican "electoral lock." But then came Bill Clinton and his drive to redefine the Democratic Party in 1992. And along came increasing polarization with the gradual disappearance of Southern conservative Democrats and Northern liberal Republicans. Then toss in what has become an increasingly self-destructive effort by Republicans to drive Latinos from the GOP and you have the new map we see today.
If you doubt the change after 1988, look at the big states and their electoral behavior in the last 15 presidential elections. California went Republican in nine of 10 elections from 1952 to 1988. It has gone Democratic in all five since. New York was a competitive state, splitting 5-5 from 1952 to 1988, but then Democratic in all five since. Pennsylvania went 6-4 Republican through 1988, then 0-5 since. Illinois was the same: 6-4 Republican through 1988, then 0-5. Ohio was even more lopsided Republican, going 8-2 Republican through the first 10 elections, but splitting 2-3 from 1992 to 2008.
On the flip side, there is the Deep South. Texas voted Democratic in four of the 10 elections through 1988 but has been 5-0 Republican since. But that has not been enough to keep the GOP from slipping. What was a Republican electoral lock became today's decidedly Democratic advantage in the most populous states.
"It is night and day," says veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who first worked in the 1964 campaign. He blamed demographics for much of the shift, noting that California has "moved from being white to minority." Additionally, he noted that Republicans have alienated Latinos, the fastest-growing group of voters. Bill Schneider, a senior analyst at the centrist Democratic group Third Way, suggests it also reflects the final stages of a decades-long push to polarization. "Partisanship has become dug in," he says, citing author Bill Bishop's "big sort" theory that Americans more and more are settling in communities that share their political biases.
Bishop, in his 2008 book The Big Sort, noted that about half of all counties in the United States now settle presidential elections in landslides no matter how close the national vote. In 1976, he wrote, only 26 percent of voters lived in landslide counties. That went to 41 percent in 1988, 45 percent in 2000 and 48.3 percent in 2004. It means, says Schneider, that more and more states are "locked in" for one of the parties. "If you are an unfortunate person who happens to live in Texas or California, you are not going to see a campaign. They only go there to raise money. So the campaign has disappeared except for a few lucky places like Iowa."
It also means that candidates in the final stretch of a campaign are fighting more to rev up the base than appeal to centrist voters. "Today, it is run to the edge rather than run to the middle," says Hart. For Obama, that means excite young people and Hispanics. "And if that costs him some independent voters? He will more than make up for it on the edge."
Blame the smaller map.