President Obama’s new immigration policy and Mitt Romney’s Midwest bus tour may seem unrelated, but taken together they may have clarified how the two presidential campaigns will treat the electoral map this fall.
Battlegrounds in the New South such as Virginia and North Carolina are likely to see the fiercest fighting. But the Romney-Obama clashes that were expected to rage across such states as Nevada and New Mexico might instead happen in places like Wisconsin and Michigan. Fueled by demographics and the moves made by the candidates, the importance of the Upper Midwest has grown at the expense of the Southwest.
The shift was evident the past week, during Romney’s six-state tour across the Rust Belt and nearby states. It’s a region of the country that typically leans left in presidential elections. Pennsylvania, for example, gave President Obama a 10-point victory less than four years ago and hasn’t swung toward a GOP presidential nominee since 1988. But Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, nonetheless campaigned in the state on Saturday, and he disputed a local congressman’s assertion that Romney doubted he could win it.
"He said that you guys need to convince me that I’m going to win Pennsylvania,” Romney said, rebutting not only the lawmaker but also a perception that his chances in the state were slim. “I’ve got news for you, congressman: I am going to win Pennsylvania!”
Declarations of impending victory from presidential candidates aren’t unusual. But the confidence that Romney evinced during his Pennsylvania stop was symbolic of a larger strategic point that emerged during his bus tour: The former Massachusetts governor thinks this traditionally blue region of the country could prove crucial in his race to reach 270 electoral votes. That list includes the quintessential swing state of Ohio, along with Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Iowa, all on Romney's tour and all of which typically vote Democratic at the presidential level.
Romney’s Rust Belt optimism emerged frequently during the bus tour. When he appeared on Monday in Wisconsin, a state that vaulted into the toss-up category after its GOP governor, Scott Walker, comfortably fended off a recall, Romney said that Obama “just assumed from the very beginning Wisconsin was going to be his,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “But you know what? We’re going to win Wisconsin.”
A day later, Romney underlined his confidence yet again in Michigan, where his father served as governor, telling an audience that it’s “a state we can win" and that “if I win in Michigan … then I become president.”
GOP operatives based in states that Romney toured, buoyed by ever-tightening polls both nationally and locally, share Romney’s new optimism about the region. “I think a month-and-a-half ago they thought it was going to be tough, an uphill battle, and they were trying to decide whether to put a lot of eggs in that basket,” said Jim Roddey, a county chairman from western Pennsylvania and key Romney backer in the state. “I think we’ve seen that change in the last six weeks.”
Added Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad: “I think Iowa is a central part of their strategy. Governor Romney is coming here because they truly believe Iowa is in play."
Romney’s viability there – driven by dissatisfaction with the president among blue-collar white voters who populate the region – indicates that the Republican's path to a majority of Electoral College votes doesn’t parallel 2004, when President Bush won re-election. The game plan isn’t simply to recapture longtime purple and red states that Obama won in 2008, such as Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia – it’s to re-imagine how Republicans can win the White House by striking at the heart of Democratic territory. In the last five presidential elections, Iowa and New Hampshire each went for the GOP choice only once; Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin clocked in at zero.
“Folks in these states are troubled by Obama's lack of leadership on the economy and unhappy with policies that haven't contributed to job growth in businesses big or small in their town or community,” said Kevin Madden, a Romney campaign adviser. “Some of the old campaign models that look past a state because of its electoral history or some registration edge just aren't as important.”
Romney, of course, still faces a stiff set of challenges in the region, and in-state party insiders, though optimistic, say that even under rosy scenarios he’s likely to pick off only a few of them. Polls show that Obama retains a significant lead in Pennsylvania and, despite Walker’s victory, exit polls from the recall and a new poll released Wednesday found that the president is still favored over Romney in Wisconsin. Although he has family ties in Michigan, Romney opposed the popular auto industry bailout that was an economic lifeline for the state and region.
Winning a few unlikely Rust Belt states might be more of a necessity than a luxury for Romney after last week. The president’s decision to stop deporting children of illegal immigrants is wildly popular among Hispanics, according to polls, and they were already wary of Romney because of his hard-line stands on immigration. An early June Gallup Poll found that Obama’s approval among Latinos had actually risen since before his 2008 election, a marked difference from his loss in support among nearly every other group of voters.
Tuesday also brought reports that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., seen as a possible savior for Romney among Latino voters, may not be under serious consideration as his running mate, and perhaps more important, may scrap plans to introduce a GOP version of the DREAM Act that many Republicans thought Romney would ultimately adopt.
That makes Southwest swing states like Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico – each in Obama’s corner four years ago -- a difficult climb for Romney. Winning states that lack a large Hispanic population, such as Michigan or Wisconsin, might now be Romney's road to victory, says Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. “It shrinks the viable path Mitt Romney has to make it to 270 [electoral votes] for November,” she says.
That’s not to say that Colorado and Nevada aren’t battlegrounds – they are and will continue to be (although New Mexico, as a majority minority state, probably isn’t). Romney’s advisers believe that what they characterize as Obama’s economic mismanagement will turn off Hispanics, as it has other voters.
But the math in the Southwest certainly got harder for the GOP during the last few days, just as it started looking easier in the Upper Midwest. As one pathway to the White House for Romney narrows, another one is opening up.